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City: Constitutional rights trump safety concerns at Colorado Springs events

June 23, 2015 Updated: June 23, 2015 at 9:00 am
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photo - Mark Beeman looks down the center row of parked bikes during the Tejon Street Bike Fest Sunday, June 22, 2014. Tejon Street was shut down for the hundreds of bikes that lined the road. Photos by Julia Moss, The Gazette
Mark Beeman looks down the center row of parked bikes during the Tejon Street Bike Fest Sunday, June 22, 2014. Tejon Street was shut down for the hundreds of bikes that lined the road. Photos by Julia Moss, The Gazette 

If an agitated man with a high-capacity 9 mm pistol and 75 rounds bursts into this Sunday's Tejon Street Bike Fest, as he did two years ago, festival organizer Jim Wear would like to escort him out.

Ditto with white supremacists, gang members and anti-abortion activists carrying graphic signs.

But under a ruling by the City Attorney's Office, that's no longer allowed.

The city must protect the constitutional rights of people attending events on municipal streets and sidewalks, the lawyers have determined. Even if the person is obnoxious and hassling festivalgoers, he can't be escorted out of the event - not even by police - unless he's breaking the law.

"The City Attorney's Office is more concerned about constitutional rights violation lawsuits than the public safety of citizens," Wear said.

A city spokeswoman denied requests to interview a city attorney staff member, saying it's "a complex issue."

Said police Cmdr. Pat Rigdon: "It's just a really tough balance for us: constitutional rights vs. public safety. It's something we take very seriously. And we have to; we're sworn to uphold the Constitution for everyone."

Police have the responsibility of arresting someone who breaks the law at an event, Rigdon said. But Wear would be happier with a more proactive approach.

"By the time the law is broken, or a fight breaks out, or someone assaults someone, it's too late," he said.

In 2013, he said, the man with the 9 mm pistol "was acting belligerent, agitated and appeared unstable and should not be walking around in a crowded atmosphere."

"His safety was also at risk," amid 30,000 to 35,000 motorcycle riders, Wear said.

"He was strutting up and down the street, looking for a fight, and all we could do was watch him. It was less about the weapon and more about his demeanor."

The City Attorney's Office has issued an advisory to event organizers, underscoring the need to protect people's constitutional rights.

Then it adds: "That is not to say, however, that an event organizer does not have discretion to regulate an event," as the U.S. Supreme Court found that a parade organizer "has a constitutional right to see that another does not interfere with the message of the parade."

The advisory is confusing, Wear said.

"We're not asking for autonomous control," said the 30-year local promoter. "But if they were willing to have a dialogue - which no one at the City Attorney's Office ever has - we might be able to reach a compromise.

"There are ways, as in other municipalities, to protect people's constitutional rights, our rights as businessmen, the integrity of the event and the safety of the people."

Police are at every special event with a city permit, and 15 to 20 officers are expected at the Sunday festival, along with Wear's two dozen or so security guards.

Rigdon recalled having to oust a group from an event in 2007, before the city attorney's ruling.

Soulforce members from Lynchburg, Va., got a special events permit to close the street outside Focus on the Family. There, Soulforce championed gay marriage, which the Focus opposes.

The event also drew members of Westboro Baptist Church, which is notorious for its hate speech. They posed a "high likelihood of conflict," Rigdon said. "We found it in the best interests of the community not to have both groups co-mingle."

The Westboro members were moved outside the event area, but the groups still could see and hear each other, he said.

Wear said six current and former city police sergeants have told him they, too, fear that "it's only a matter of time before something bad happens" under the 2013 ruling.

"If they want to go by the Constitution, we should be able to carry guns into the office where the mayor is," he said. "My opinion is, a large special event also deserves special consideration.

"During Territory Days, you've got 50,000 people in a four-block area. That's not a normal day in Colorado Springs. It requires special attention. That's why we pay 25 cops to be there."

But the city, not the event organizer, is liable for constitutional violations on its property, the advisory notes.

Meanwhile, Rigdon said, the city is reviewing whether private security guards could be used in place of some police officers, as is done elsewhere, "to keep it more affordable for the organizer." But sworn officers are the only ones with legal authority to oust anyone - even at Sunday's event featuring "bikes, babes," beer and bikinis, as promoted by Wear.

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