Can Miami Really Ban Giant Puppets?

Plus, why police say they’re a menace.

Giant puppets: power to offend

Over 100,000 protesters are expected at next week’s Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. In anticipation, the city is considering an ordinance that would, according to Reuters, ban “glass bottles, slingshots, signs on wooden sticks and giant puppets.” Can Miami really ban giant puppets?

Probably not, and it’s looking more and more like the city’s going to temper its antipuppet plans. The police worry that the sticks used to hold the puppets aloft might be used as cudgels, or that the papier-mâché characters could conceal weaponry. The Miami City Commission initially considered an outright ban on the puppets, which have been a staple of antiglobalization protests for the past several years. But attorneys noted that such a sweeping prohibition wouldn’t pass constitutional muster, since the ban could be construed as infringing on First Amendment rights. So, the second version of the city’s antiriot ordinance, which comes up for a vote tomorrow, specifically permits giant puppets, provided that they are supported by lumber that “does not exceed 10 feet in length and 1-by-2 inches in width.”

The city argues that legal precedent supports the legality of such size restrictions. In May, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld similar regulations in Vlasak v. Superior Court. In that case, a woman named Pamelyn Vlasak—née Ferdin, and famous for voicing Lucy in several Peanuts TV specials—was arrested at a 1999 animal-rights protest. She had been brandishing a “bull hook,” a tool used by elephant trainers. A 1978 Los Angeles ordinance specifically bans any object that exceeds “three-quarters inch in its thickest dimension” at all city protests. The bull hook was 1.5 inches thick and thus deemed a potential safety hazard. Explained a Los Angeles deputy city attorney after the Ninth Circuit ruling: “If it can hurt an elephant, it has the potential to hurt a human being during a protest.”

But puppeteers and the American Civil Liberties Union have complained that the restrictions amount to a de facto ban, since many of the puppets are too large to be supported by such short, skinny sticks. A purposeful ban—even a de facto one—could be ruled unconstitutional, so an amendment has been written that would scrap the limitations and allow giant puppets “so long as the lumber or wood is not detached from the puppets.” The buzz is that the amendment will be tacked on to the ordinance tomorrow, along with a sentence that specifically permits the use of stilts shorter than 15 feet. The stilt bit comes about as the result of complaints from Miami’s Caribbean community; the community’s annual parades are famous for their brightly outfitted stilt walkers.

Bonus Explainer: Puppets have a long history of ticking off those in power and facing subsequent prohibition. In 1793, for example, the duchy of Saxony banned puppet shows as subversive, since the plots often poked fun at aristocratic corruption and vice. And the government of Napoleon III outlawed improvisation among French puppeteers in 1852, for similarly repressive reasons.

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Explainer thanks Randall Marshall and Lida Rodriguez-Taseff of the American Civil Liberties Union.