Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Accommodating free speech in Millennium Park

There are many lovely parks in Chicago and its suburbs, but there is only one Millennium Park. It’s among the most popular tourist destinations in the entire Midwest, attracting some 25 million visitors a year. Many of those people take time to gaze at the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known as The Bean.

Among the visitors has been a group of Wheaton College students who think the park, and the area around The Bean, is a good place to do something they see as a duty: sharing their Christian faith by talking to people and handing out literature. But when they tried it last year, park employees told them they were violating park rules. Those rules allow “the making of speeches and the passing out of written communications” in only one small part of the park, as well as on the sidewalks.

Since then, the students have done their evangelizing elsewhere. But they have also filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago, which they say is violating their First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion. “The Bean is one of the highest tourist attractions in the United States ... that’s where you want to get your message out,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, John Mauck, told the Tribune.

The students have a plausible case — up to a point. Public parks, the Supreme Court noted in 1939, “have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.”

In such spaces, you don’t need to get a permit, pay a fee or rent a hall. You can just show up and convey your message to anyone who is open to it. Others in the park are free to ignore you, argue with you or walk away.

The city, however, has tried to seal this site off from such activities. It divides Millennium Park into 11 sections — and tolerates free communication in just one of them, in the northwest corner. So some 90% of the space, including The Bean — is off-limits to anyone with a message to share.

The city’s policy, in seeking to ban speech activity in nearly all of the park, is too strict and appears to run afoul of the First Amendment. The city already bans loudspeakers and bullhorns, and it certainly has the right to police noise and conduct in spaces where musical or other performances are taking place. Before the city can forbid free expression in a public space, it needs a good reason — and it needs to “leave open ample alternative means for communication of the information,” as the Supreme Court has stipulated.


1 comment:

Bird of Paradise said...

Make those stupid park officials write down I WILL NOT BAN CITIZENS FROM THEIR FREEDOM OF SPEECH and make them write it down 1000 times on the Blackboard