Occupy Philly protesters were not happy in November 2011 when they were evicted from the large concrete apron in front of City Hall known as Dilworth Plaza to make room for a $55 million renovation that includes an ice-skating rink, cafe and other improvements. Some demonstrators denounced the project as a playground for the 1 percent and questioned the leasing of the public space to the private Center City District. Many, however, ultimately concluded that the weathered wasteland could use a facelift. Plus, the assigned federal monies could not be repurposed.
But one slide in a March 2011 Center City District presentation, overlooked until now, would certainly have given protesters pause: On City Hall’s north side, there is a plan for a “Speakers’ Corner,” riffing on the original in London’s Hyde Park.
“The design of the Plaza contemplates incorporating a ‘Free Speech Zone’ on the north apron of City Hall, much like the area on Independence Mall designated for the exercise of free speech,” Paul Levy, CEO of the Center City District, wrote in an e-mail. “We are seeking to balance all related interests with the programming and public events that will occur with great frequency in this renewed public space.”
There’s a strain of European mimicry in Philadelphia, but it generally takes a Francophile bent: Witness the Rittenhouse bistro Parc, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway obliterating a streetscape in favor of a frail homage to Paris’ Champs-Élysées, and Bart Blatstein’s proposed “Provence” casino on North Broad Street. Add to that City Hall, the Free Library and Family Court, which are all inspired by Parisian originals.
But the Dilworth Speakers’ Corner has implications far beyond the aesthetic.
Free-speech advocates typically malign free-speech zones, which have proliferated in recent years, as measures to restrict and contain free speech — the zone at Independence Mall very much included. In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the U.S. Park Service had violated the First Amendment rights of an anti-abortion activist when it ordered him to relocate his protest from the Liberty Bell’s entrance to a designated “free speech area.”
The court, which previously described “the streets and sidewalks of Philadelphia [as] an undisputed quintessential public forum,” found that the “maintenance of the public order … does not license the government to deprive an individual of a Constitutional right irrespective of the circumstances.”
It cited a Supreme Court finding that a “park is a traditional public forum” and that “traditional public fora are defined by the objective characteristics of the property, such as whether, by long tradition or by government fiat, the property has been devoted to assembly and debate.”
As for other questions, Levy referred City Paper to the city, which said that the same permit requirements — applying to all protests of more than 75 people — will remain in place once Dilworth reopens this fall.
“Demonstration permit requirements are as set forth in the policy,” says Bob Allen of the Managing Director’s office. “The requirements applied before and will apply going forward.”
Neither Levy nor Mayor Michael Nutter would comment on whether the city or the CCD planned to curtail protests in the plaza.
In 2003, the city settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of protesters, who, in 2001, claimed that officials attempted to block their 48-hour vigil proclaiming the innocence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was convicted of the 1981 killing of Philly Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
“The areas of the Plaza that are open to normal pedestrian traffic will have to be open to protests,” says Philadelphia ACLU senior staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper. “Like any other place, the city can impose reasonable restrictions and permit requirements there.”
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