Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Restrictions on speech


Free speech or urban blight?

I guess the antiwar newspaper I've been distributing is getting out there. One of the odd consequences of offering print propaganda free to volunteer users is that you have no idea what they'll do with it. Occasionally they send stories. I've particularly enjoyed hearing from the distributor who always passes out the paper to immigrant push cart vendors at outdoor concerts with the Spanish side folded out. Then there are several who make a practice of leaving papers on buses and subways.

Since we shipped out the new issue of War Times, we gotten back the first of a genre of aggrieved notices we've seen before. This communication is from a Southern California trailer park:

Your publication was distributed throughout our private mobile home community without written permission from the ownership or management of the property.

You or your associates are NOT authorized to distribute material on private property without express permission of the ownership.

We have no way of knowing who is putting out the paper, so we don't respond.

The trailer park does have the law on its side. In general, it is illegal to do something on somebody else's property without their permission (though California makes a limited exception for private land that serves as a public venue such as a shopping mall and possibly for college dorms).

Even though they may overstep the law, I can't get too distressed if our activist enthusiasts push the limits a little. Between privatization of what once was public space (as in gated communities) and restrictions in the name of preventing "visual clutter" (such as laws against putting flyers on utility polls or under wipers on parked cars), the arenas we have for expressing unpopular opinions are narrowing. As in so many areas, if we don't use what we have, we'll lose even that -- and if we exercise what venues we can for destabilizing speech, we will win more space. That's how the world works. Moreover, what could be more essential to a democratic culture than people reaching out to share their concerns with their neighbors?

Just today we got a request for papers -- "Please send me 225 copies to distribute in my apartment complex..." I wonder if we'll hear from his landlord.

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