Saturday, January 21, 2012

2012-01-21 "'Political-free zone' at Benicia farmers market not enforceable, police chief says" by Tony Burchyns from "Vallejo Times Herald"
For some, restricting political speech at the farmers market is about as popular as a bushel of rotten tomatoes.
For others, the idea goes hand in hand with ensuring a safe and orderly market.
But what are the rules, really, about who has a right to say what on a public street?
The question springs from City Councilman Alan Schwartzman's proposal this week to discourage political campaigning within 50 feet of Benicia's downtown farmers market. Schwartzman lost a tough mayoral battle in November to incumbent Elizabeth Patterson, who campaigned regularly at the entrance to the weekly seasonal market at First and B streets.
Patterson's supporters flanked the entrance, setting up a booth on the west side and also standing across the street to greet people and hand out literature.
Benicia Main Street, the nonprofit group that operates the market, does not allow political groups to set up or collect signatures within the market area.
Some wonder what power Main Street has to restrict speech. Benicia Police Chief Andrew Bidou said that his department would lack the grounds to arrest someone for simply passing out campaign materials in the market, despite Main Street's rules. He said that would be like arresting a resident of a condo complex for swimming in the pool past the posted cutoff time.
As Bidou put it, "We don't enforce private rules."
Nancy Martinez, Main Street's executive director, said that organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the Republican and Democratic parties in the past have been allowed to set up booths at the market. But Martinez said their purpose was to register voters, not talk politics.
The market itself has been designated a "political free zone," so outright campaigning is not allowed, Martinez said.
Other markets have established "free speech" areas for people to express political viewpoints. Part of the reason for this is to balance free speech interests with those of local farmers trying to earn a living, said Thomas Dorn, a market manager with the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, which operates 65 weekly markets including one in Vallejo.
"Usually we have a designated spot in our markets on the curb or on the edge of the market," Dorn said. "You don't want to interrupt commerce. It's not corporate farmers here. They are individuals trying to make a living."
Dorn said merchants or others passing out advertisements or leaflets in his markets are asked to stick to the designated areas. He added that occasionally there are those who object to the rules as being "anti-free speech." But he said most realize and respect the farmers' interest in having an orderly market.
"I think it does happen at times where people start going crazy saying 'How can it be free speech?' if it's confined to an area," Dorn said. "Hopefully it doesn't get to that."
The Benicia council voted unanimously Tuesday to discuss the issue at a future meeting.
"In this particular election, people were going down to the farmers market which is supposed to be a political free zone ... and there was campaigning just literally outside the market," Schwartzman said. "While it might be not a big deal to have one candidate ... it's not difficult to make the leap that multiple committee members (may want to join them) down there doing the same thing. And that to me is where this could go if we don't do anything about it."
Schwartzman is seeking to add the restriction to the city's voluntary code of conduct for political candidates. The 2007 ordinance is meant to encourage honest, fair and responsible campaigning and, while voluntary, is viewed as a necessary pledge in the eyes of many voters.
The proposed discussion is linked to another Schwartzman request to discuss making it illegal to contact campaign donors -- an idea that has also raised First Amendment red flags.
Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge, the market's first manager when it opened 20 years ago, said the "political free zone" was modeled after other markets to foster a more inclusive atmosphere. There were also littering problems, she said, because political fliers would "wind up on the street and I would have to pick them up."
Strawbridge said the political groups were asked to set up at First and D streets, and for a while she said the idea seemed like a good compromise.
"If Main Street would dedicate a table or a space for political candidates that may be something they could do," Strawbridge said at Tuesday's council meeting. "But I think that obviously there is a lot of discussion on this and people need to know how the market works and that this wasn't a willy-nilly decision ... that we did set the policy based on other markets."

No comments:

Post a Comment