Naked City

The City's "Public" Property

You'd think that 213 years after the Bill of Rights was written, some things might have been worked out. But Texas Campaign for the Environment Director Robin Schneider had two police confrontations last month for exercising her First Amendment rights -- in the wrong place.

TCE tried to leaflet outside the doors of the city-owned Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex on Feb. 9 (during the center's Austin Black Family Technology Day) and inside the Austin Convention Center Feb. 12 (at a meeting of Dell Computer employees). In both cases, Schneider was told to move to the sidewalk, off the respective properties. In the Convention Center case, she was told to relocate across the street and threatened with arrest by DPS and APD officers if she did not. TCE was promoting awareness of the dangers of electronic waste, and specifically what TCE perceives as failings by Dell to take responsibility for the problem.

In response to Schneider's letter of complaint, City Attorney Sedora Jefferson wrote that, "Neither the MYEC nor the Convention Center has been designated as a public forum that can be used by the public for free-speech activity. The sidewalks near the streets at these facilities, however, are available for First Amendment activity." This suggests that other facilities have been designated as "public forums," but no. "There is no list," Schneider says, adding she asked Assistant City Attorney Raul Calderon to provide her with one. Calderon says that police are typically instructed that protesters may use sidewalks as long as they don't obstruct entry to a facility. The Convention Center officer apparently erred due to the center's unusual sidewalk design, and Calderon said city staff would work to clarify where the center's property line ends.

"The general answer is that you've got your parks, squares, sidewalks, and streets as traditional public forums," says Calderon, "and then anything else beyond that gets thrown in on either council specifically saying this is a public forum or the city [designating it] as a public forum either by use or by tradition or by practice." Schneider thinks the MYEC and Convention Center should be added to the ill-defined nonlist and intends to press the matter to the City Council. "I think we have to look to the city to stand up for public engagement," she said.

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