City parks code curbs protests, full free speech 

“It just seems to be a human trait to want to protect the speech of people with whom we agree. For the First Amendment, that is not good enough. So it is really important that we protect First Amendment rights of people no matter what side of the line they are on.” — Floyd Abrams, constitutional law expert

Not many people have likely heard about the San Francisco Municipal Park Code. But buried within its legalese is Section 7.08 Subsection D, which should give everyone pause about the exercise of First Amendment rights within The City’s parks.

“Stern Grove, Justin Herman Plaza, Portsmouth Square, Union Square, Mission Dolores Park, Civic Center, and the Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park are frequent sites for the issuance of permits involving large groups of people,” the document states. “In order to prevent interference with the progress and enjoyment of these events, no person may engage in petitioning, leafletting, demonstrating or soliciting in these parks while an event is in progress for which a permit has  been issued by the Recreation and Park Department except in those areas described below as public assembly areas.”

The code spells out areas that are permanently off-limits to protests during permitted events. The issue recently came to light when a group attempted to protest an event in Union Square that was being put on by Ringling Brothers Circus. The demonstrators were approached by a San Francisco Police Department officer and a park ranger. The protesters were moved into a section of Union Square, far from the event. Under Section 7.08(d), the western half of Union Square is off-limits to protesters during permitted events, while the eastern half is where demonstrators must remain. Other interesting quirks of the code include a rule that only the first 50 feet of the perimeter of Dolores Park can be used for protesting. The park’s center is always off-limits.

The parks code lays out stiff guidelines for where demonstrators must remain so as to not annoy other park users. And, true, people exercising such rights can be annoying, and in many cases protests are purposely rambunctious just to garner attention for their causes.  But annoyance alone is not a good enough reason to curb anyone’s First Amendment rights.

There are limits to free speech, however, and the parks code is too rigid. In the instance of the protest in Union Square, silently standing beside the event with signs would not have unacceptably interfered with the event, although screaming with a bullhorn might have — in which case there could be justification for moving demonstrators. Yet blindly herding protesters to areas far away from the action tramples their rights to convey a message to the people they are trying to reach.

Fortunately, Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation Tuesday that would take this section of the parks code off the books. This legislative effort deserves the full support of everyone in city government. Until the code is rewritten, The City should make sure that no officials again use it to deny people their rights to free speech, no matter which side of the line they are standing on in a park.

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