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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Supervisors Consider Eliminating Designated Public Assembly Areas in Parks

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2012 at 12:15 PM

San Francisco may be free of  "free speech zones" soon. - FRED NOLAND
  • Fred Noland
  • San Francisco may be free of "free speech zones" soon.

A few weeks ago we wrote about a group of animal rights activists who filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the Parks Code is unconstitutional ("Free Speech: Activists Challenge Parks Code's Protest Rules").

They were seeking to protest a Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey circus in Union Square last September when police directed them to the park's "designated public assembly area." Every park, Joseph Cuviello and his fellow demonstrators learned, had one of those. The policy applies whenever a permitted event takes place.The rationale, section 7.08(d) of the Parks Code states, is "to prevent interference with the progress and enjoyment" of the events.

That law might not last much longer, though, as the strange nuances of the Parks Code now face city hall scrutiny. Today, Supervisor Scott Wiener is proposing legislation that would eliminate the section 7.08(d) and its designated free speech areas.

As we explained, the law was pretty confusing:

Section 7.08(d), made law in 1981, dictates "designated public assembly areas" for parks. But the locations are precise, unmarked, and seemingly arbitrary, like that random corner of the club where guys awkwardly congregate to sip drinks, lean against the wall, and stare at the dancefloor.
When there's a permitted event at Justin Herman Plaza, you can picket in "the western portion of the Plaza at street level," but not "the east end below street level, including the steps leading down to that area." At Portsmouth Square, you have just a 50-foot radius from the parking garage elevators at your disposal.

So confusing, in fact, that the officers at Union Square that day of the circus initially shuttled Cuviello and friends to a space that was 20 feet by 20 feet in the southeastern corner of the park. It wasn't until a sergeant and one of the activists' lawyers arrived that the mess was untangled, and all parties agreed that the city law allowed demonstrations throughout the entire eastern half of Union Square.

Such laws are allowed because of Supreme Court rulings that give government the power to control "time, place, and manner" of free speech -- though not the content -- as long as the so-called free speech zones "are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest."

The activists, in a lawsuit filed in federal court in June, called the protest boundaries "an imaginary, unspecified 'free speech meridian' line."

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