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Clearwater merchants upset over anti-Scientology protests

CLEARWATER — About three dozen downtown business owners are upset with a group of anti-Scientology protesters and want the City Council to do something about them.

But city leaders Tuesday said there's little they can do.
"Suspending the First Amendment is something we shouldn't spend a whole lot of time on," Councilman Paul Gibson said.

The loosely organized group Anonymous has held several recent demonstrations against the Church of Scientology. Many Cleveland Street businesses say the masked protesters and the constant chanting have begun to take a toll.

They say the monthly demonstrations are turning away customers and ruining the overall ambiance of a downtown that city leaders have spent years trying to revitalize. And, they say, the protesters are scaring away people.

A petition signed by 34 merchants and two residents asked the council for "assistance in this matter."

The petition said the local Anonymous group, mostly college students, have a right to peacefully protest, "but they are in no way peaceful."

"Their actions have prevented customers from coming into our stores," said the petition, which was submitted Friday to City Hall. "These people are making it difficult for us to attract customers downtown."

On Tuesday, the City Council spent less than two minutes discussing the issue. The members agreed to send a letter to the businesses, saying they would not address the issue.

"I'm glad the City Council recognized our rights as Americans to gather to speak our opinions and protest," said Joshua Nussbaum, 19, a student in Hillsborough County and local Anonymous organizer. "They did what was right . . . and we will continue to do what we think is right."

The majority of the business owners who signed the petition are Scientologists, which led some in Anonymous to question whether the church had a hand in the petition. But Church of Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney and a number of business owners who spoke with the Times on Monday denied it.

The merchants said they were concerned the protesters would harm the downtown that Clearwater is trying to rebuild.

"You can hear them screaming, hear cars honking and people who come here for a massage just want to relax," said Gen Cournoyer, owner of Botanica Day Spa, 123 N Fort Harrison Ave.

"You're entitled to free speech," said Cournoyer, a 26-year-old church member, "but we're trying to make a living and it can affect the people who work here. Plus it's an eyesore. They look punkish."

But the dissatisfaction isn't limited to businesses owned by Scientologists.

Debbie King manages Trickels Jewelers and is not a Scientologist. She didn't sign the petition but wishes the protesters would go away. "People don't want to come downtown when that's going on," King said.

She added that the masks Anonymous members don to shield their identities also scare children.

Angela Gioffre, who owns an Italian clothing store and helped organize the petition, said she will talk to other merchants to see if they can meet with city leaders.

"We have to find a solution," she said.

Others, though, don't see the protests as a big deal.

"When they're out there, they do whatever they do, but they haven't scared our customers," said Manola Louvon, 30, whose father owns Chiang Mai, a Thai restaurant at 415 Cleveland St.

Local leaders have invested millions into revitalizing the downtown's core, particularly its main east-west thoroughfare — Cleveland Street — where most of the affected businesses are located.

And while council members say they want to lure more businesses downtown and help keep the ones there happy, they say the demonstrators haven't done anything illegal.

Anonymous organizer Nussbaum said "our problem is with the management and leadership of the church," and questioned how the marches could harm local shops.

"We've never said anything to the employees or customers — we've always been polite," he said adding that members are frequent patrons of many of the businesses.

He also pointed out that no Anonymous member has been arrested or cited during the demonstrations. But he said he would be willing to meet with business owners.

The group, which marched in downtown for the fourth time last Saturday, has a core of about 80 members, he said. The next march will be June 14 when they'll dress like pirates, calling the demonstration "Sea Arrrgh," a poke at Sea Org, a religious order in the church.

[Last modified: May 14, 2008 02:14 AM]

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Clearwater council right to leave Scientology protests alone

The Clearwater City Council took mere seconds Tuesday to deliver a powerful message: that people have the right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, and the city won't even consider trying to tread on that right.

Thirty-four downtown merchants and two residents signed a petition calling for the city government to take action against Anonymous, a loosely organized, Internet-based group that has been conducting worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology for months. Since the first of the year, the group has led four weekend protests in downtown Clearwater, where the Church of Scientology has its spiritual headquarters and a massive presence. Another protest is planned for June 14.

The protests in Clearwater have been peaceful, without a single arrest, but they do look a bit bizarre. The protesters wear masks or bandannas to cover their faces because they believe the Church of Scientology will target them if they are recognizable. It is not an idle fear, since in the past the church has been accused of using private investigators to follow critics or contacting their employers.

Downtown Clearwater merchants who signed the petition told the St. Petersburg Times that the protests are keeping away customers and the masked protesters look scary to children. The Church of Scientology also has objected to the tenor of the protests, accusing Anonymous of using hate speech — signs carried by protesters often refer to Scientology as a cult or a scam — and claiming that Anonymous members have phoned in death threats to the church and attacked the church's computer systems.

However, Clearwater police have closely monitored the Anonymous protests, and they have seen no reason to arrest or cite the protesters.

Anonymous organizers say they have not blocked customers from entering downtown businesses and that no one has any reason to fear the protesters, who generally have numbered from 50 to about 200 — nowhere near the estimated 3,000 Scientologists who, in 1997, marched around downtown in a surprise mass demonstration against the Clearwater Police Department and the St. Petersburg Times. At least Anonymous provides plenty of advance notice of its demonstrations.

Scientologists had the right to speak their minds on the streets of Clearwater in 1997. And Anonymous has the right to do so in 2008. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and peaceably assemble, and it declares that government may make no laws abridging those rights.

While the tactics of Anonymous members or supporters have not always been laudatory in other parts of the world, in Clearwater, they have done nothing to warrant government intervention. They may express views that Scientologists find objectionable, but Scientology expresses views that others object to as well. Both sides have the right to express their viewpoints peacefully.

The City Council's response to the merchants' petition was exactly right.

[Last modified: May 14, 2008 09:07 PM]