If you've been to enough large-scale public events in San Francisco parks, you've undoubtedly seen something that may have struck you as particularly ironic--a small, cordoned off area labeled a "free speech zone" where protestors, petitioners and pamphleteers are roped into if they want to openly push their agendas.
See, you can exercise your First Amendment rights all you'd like. You're just going to have to do it somewhere that doesn't block everyone's view of the stage.
Need a visual aid? Here's one courtesy of SF Citizen.
The San Francisco Parks Code allows for free expression in most city parks. However, in 1981, the city placed geographic limitations on precisely where individuals are allowed to advocate for their causes in certain high-traffic locations.
People can't gather signatures more than 50 feet from the perimeter of Dolores Park, pass our flyers on the east end of Justin Herman Plaza or demonstrate on the western side of Union Square.
A controversy over the latter restriction (which side of Union Square is okay for protests) has sparked Supervisor Scott Wiener to introduce a bill at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting to scrap the laws dictating where people can and can't protest in San Francisco parks altogether.
"I'm sure it was just a desire to have predictability," Wiener told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but 31 years later, if it ever made sense it certainly doesn't make sense now."
The supervisor's move was triggered by a lawsuit against the city filed by Redwood City resident Joseph Cuviello, who claimed it was a violation of his constitutional rights when local officials told him he couldn’t hang a banner reading "Ringling Bros. Beats Animals" in the northwest corner of Union Square. The sign would have flown directly in the sightline of the audience sitting in the square to watch a performance by, you guessed it, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The way Cuviello sees it, though, the Parks Code laws restrict free speech. Cuviello and two other activists are suing the city, charging this is "plainly unconstitutional." According to their complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California in June, "demonstrators were forced to adhere to an imaginary, unspecified 'free speech meridian' line," which limited their "ability to promote their message to the people attending and witnessing the circus' event."
As written, the law is more than a little confusing. When police first blocked Cuviello from hanging his sign, they initially moved him to a corner on the western side of the square. Until Cuviello's lawyer showed up, relevant section of code in hand, and everyone discovered they had to move to the other side of the park.
The U.S. Supreme Court has generally defined corralling people into free speech zones as largely permissible as long as the regulations for doing so are narrowly drawn and neutral when it comes to content.
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