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Boxed in by 'free speech zone'?

Senta Scarborough
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 16, 2003 12:00 AM
Acivil rights advocate says a "free speech zone" at Mesa libraries infringes on First Amendment rights and should be removed.

In March, members of the Women in Black, a nationwide peace network that holds regular silent vigils, were told they had to stand in a white painted box called a "free speech zone" at Mesa's main library.

"It's probably the size of a parking space against a wall in back of a bike rack," said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.

"It doesn't give you the opportunity for your message to be seen. They felt they were given the choice of standing in the area or being arrested."

Eisenberg stood with the group for three weeks to make sure the vigil stayed peaceful and eventually reached an agreement with the city for the group to stand outside of the "zone." The Women in Black have not had any problems since then, said Amy Shinabarger, a member.

"We were unaware of 'the box' until we were told to stand in it, and we did on that first occasion," said Shinabarger, a four-year resident of Mesa. "The fact that the box is there and even exists, I think, is a violation of First Amendment rights. Even though we haven't been standing in it."

Even though the issue faded, Eisenberg said she is still working to have the policy creating the zone rescinded by the city.

"I think it is very strange since I think of librarians as the embodiment of the First Amendment and they are the ones who fight for free speech, so this was sort of a shocker," Eisenberg said.

The "free speech zone" issue was first raised after some petition signature gatherers bothered patrons who complained to the library staff, said Elissa Smith, Mesa library communications specialist.

"We just want everybody to feel comfortable coming in and out and not accosted or forced to feel like it is an uncomfortable place for them to come to," she said.

In a complaint to the library, a patron wrote, "I am proud to be a Mesa voter and try to stay informed on voting issues. But I don't like being stopped at your entrance. I just want to go to your great library."
Same for everyone
The Mesa library established "free speech zones" through a policy change on Sept. 30, 2002. The "free speech zones" have painted boundaries and are marked with a sign at all of the city's libraries.

"You could establish these free speech zones as long as they don't regulate content," Mesa deputy city attorney Joseph Padilla said. "You can't distinguish between an unpopular or popular message. They have to have the same access." No other groups have raised the issue with the city, Padilla said.

Glendale and Chandler have had problems in the past primarily with groups seeking signatures for petitions or referendums. Neither city has created a "free speech zone," but each places some restrictions on where groups can locate to ensure easy access for patrons.

"It is a real delicate balance. We have been pretty successful working it out with people," Glendale library director Rodeane Wilson said. "Free speech is a right that they have. On the other hand, people coming to use the public space like a library have their rights to not have people drive them batty to sign something."
Chandler restrictions
At its two library locations not at schools, Chandler restricts groups from protesting or setting up tables for signatures inside the building or on the walkway from the parking lot. The policy is designed to allow the public easy access to the library, acting library manager Mary Johns said.

The rules are listed on the library Web site.

"There were times when we had folks who were out front impeding the traffic," Johns said. "It is not like putting you in the basement. It is perfectly in the wide open."

Padilla, of Mesa, said that the zone must give a group proper access to the public to exercise its First Amendment rights, according to an Arizona attorney general's opinion. He said the agency can't regulate the speech but can specify time, manner and place.

"You can't put them 200 feet away," he said. "You can't put them all away, hidden. They must be easily viewed by people walking in."

But Eisenberg said other city ordinances regarding harassment or entrances or exits being blocked could be used rather than having a policy to restrict where free speech can be held.

"Restricting people's First Amendment rights was both unnecessary and unconstitutional," she said. "I absolutely want it rescinded. I want to see the United States a free speech zone."

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