I had the pleasure of interviewing street artist and free speech activist Robert Lederman for my upcoming documentary, Dialogue. Robert was arrested over 40 times by the Rudy Giuliani administration for exercising his free speech and sued the city of New York to strike down permit requirements for artists in public spaces. His case went to the Supreme Court and is cited in many free speech cases. Click here to view his full interview on YouTube.
Our freedoms are slowly and methodically being eroded. The loss of liberty does not come in sweeping pronouncements, but rather in incremental steps under the guise of protection and regulations for the common good. Robert is on the front lines of defending our first amendment rights.
Anti-free speech campaigns have successfully silenced many groups by discouraging them with convoluted permit processes and unconstitutional regulations. It turns out that many of our most valuable public spaces are controlled by one or two individuals in a city parks department or special events office. These managers wield ultimate, often arbitrary, power to approve or deny any public space use request. The result are local fiefdoms antithetical to fair access and the mission statements these public servants have been entrusted to manage.
Understaffed permit departments, lack of oversight, pressure from business interests and little public domain guidance all combine to create this atmosphere of exclusion. Our parks and public space managers are simply not equipped to fulfill their duties, so declining a special use request becomes the easiest option. An absence of community support, insufficient funding and lack of vision also add to this dilemma.
Though American democracy promotes "freedom of expression," regular citizens are effectively blocked from creative and free speech public space uses unless they have considerable financial or political influence.
Opposition groups, nascent movements, students, artists and all citizens need safe, free public space in which to communicate and develop. Planned events, spontaneous gatherings and ongoing meeting places that are autonomous from entrenched government and corporate interests are vital to a free public speech. The health and well-being of a true democracy requires free access to open public forums.
Too often though, corporate greed, privileged access and, in some cases, outright privatization have squeezed out individual freedom of expression and political action.
We need better public space management to continue fostering our democracy. This means removing stifling public permit regulations for artists, political gatherings, cultural organizations and other community groups and streamlining the permit process for those few events that require special handling.
It's time we dedicate ourselves to creating dynamic, free, thought-provoking public parks and town squares. Local governments, business improvement districts and parks departments need to prioritize and balance public use that truly serves communities at all levels.
Many times the only way to recapture these constitutional rights is to be arrested and fight in the courts.
[Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.]