Tuesday, July 24, 2007

So many amendments, so little concern.

UPDATE: We have video! (Courtesy of OwellianNation)

You know, there should be some political blowback for this.

The 74-year-old retired mathematician who is fighting Kensington officials over his right to sell buttons urging President Bush's impeachment was arrested yesterday at a farmers market and charged with trespassing.

Alan McConnell, who had been selling his "Impeach Him" buttons at the Howard Avenue market for about a half-hour without a permit, lay down on the pavement after Montgomery County police asked him to come with them. After McConnell failed to respond to a request that he "please stand up," four officers each grabbed one of his limbs and carried him to the front seat of a squad car.

Now, many have dismissed this as a non-issue from a common-sense viewpoint. These people were speaking from the perspective of organizers of public events in public spaces that require permitting and juried vendor selection.

Comment at Impeach Bush Blog by Mimi Morris — July 22, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

I'm totally in favor of impeachment, but this is a manufactured grievance. As an organizer of a long-running (and *very* progressive) event that relies on both city permitting and juried vendor selection, I recognize that what this guy is doing is jumping the line.

If he wants a booth from which to reach the patrons brought in by the market's organizers, he can go through the same process all the other vendors did. If the event's organizers choose not to give him a booth (which they won't, since what he's selling is not produce) he has every right to reach the same number of potential buyers by standing on the adjacent sidewalk, offering his buttons to people as they come and go from the farmer's market.

But to insist on his alleged right to do business within the permit area without having gone through the process is simply stealing access to an audience built by someone else for another purpose — and that would be true even if he were not aggressive about it.

It's not about free speech. If he were giving the buttons away free, he *might* have a case…but maybe not. The Sixth Circuit just decided a case two years ago that gave ballot petitioners the right to circulate in crowds gathered by permit holders in public parks, but AFAIK event permit holders still have the right to ask anyone who is even giving away materials to do so outside the permit area.

And that's as it should be. Imagine how you would feel if, having spent months or years building an audience and organizing a political or cultural evvent designed to raise money for good folks who cooperated in your process, some corporation decided to bring in a squad of salesmen to disrupt traffic flow and siphon off the interest of your cutomers.

Permitting of public spaces is one of the few areas where public policy actually works for the common good. Please rethink the knee-jerk reaction that assumes this well-intentioned man was wronged. Considering how many times he was asked to take his business outside the area, it should be clear that he was seeking this confrontation. Noisy self-made martyrs do our common cause no real good.
There are plenty of actual free speech violations going unheeded. This isn't one of them.

But according to one supporter also commenting further down-thread, that's not the case with the Kensington Farmer's Market.

  1. As a Kensington resident I supported Alan's efforts and the demonstration on Saturday. Alan did not need a permit. There are no rules for the Kensington Market. I know this becuase I asked the person in charge of the market at the Town of Kensington who admitted they do not have rules written down. So they make them up as they go. Alan has been selling buttons at the market for over a year!

    He is also not in people's faces, he simply asks passers-by if they would like a button. No more aggrssive then those who man booth at the mall.

    Comment by Pam — July 23, 2007 @ 8:58 am

So, if that is the case, the question returns to whether this is selective enforcement of arbitrary rules. Again, IF so, that's definitely an issue that is worth dramatizing in order to resolve in court. Furthermore, it appears that the conflict is between the Mayor of Kensington and McConnell.

Three weeks ago, McConnell was issued a trespassing warning after being asked to leave the market. McConnell has said that he sold the buttons at the market for months without a license. Last week, Fosselman canceled the market because he was concerned that McConnell's "potentially aggressive" supporters might endanger the safety of customers. On Thursday, two Montgomery County police officers issued McConnell an updated trespassing warning, while a Kensington official gave him a citation for selling at the market without a permit. That ticket carries a possible $500 fine.

McConnell got another of those citations yesterday before his arrest, but he continued to sell his buttons for $1 apiece even as Kensington code enforcement officer Louise Hamilton filled out the ticket. Hamilton said the mayor requested that she come to the market to see whether McConnell was selling his buttons without a license.

Meanwhile, those who oppose holding Bush accountable for his constitutional vandalism are weighing in.

  1. You and those like you are misguided and un-American. I support your being watched and, if deemed necessary, rounded up and either imprisoned or deported.

    Comment by Mike — July 22, 2007 @ 10:35 am

Ya know, buddy, if this were Stalinist Russia, Communist China or Cuba, you'd be right. That would be the "patriotic" thing to do. Me, I support the vicious mockery of any such would-be Stalinist until they do something unfortunate enough to permit us to round them up and imprison them, with the option of voluntarily renouncing their citizenship in favor of emigration to a country that better supports their authoritarian point of view.

But most folks, commenting on various sites, simply said "get a permit." The question is, though, CAN you get a permit? Is it reasonably priced? Is the process itself designed to discourage First Amendment activity? Remember, commercial speech is still protected speech. Indeed, we must ask, has the permitting process become politicized? Seeing that this conflict seems to have become a personal power-struggle between the Mayor and the elderly McConnel, it seems to me something worth investigating.

In particular, the canecellation of the market because of concerns that McConnel's supporters were "potentialy aggressive" sets off my bullshit alarm. It strikes me more as potentially being ploy to pressure other venders into supporting the mayor's agenda.

Just because a town is left-leaning, it does not follow that it's government is, especially within unelected positions. The intent of infiltrating local government by stealth in order to monkey-wrench liberal agendas is something Ralph Reed has spoken about at length to his Christianist-Conservative supporters. More on that here.

And remember what these buttons say. "Impeach Him." It IS a loaded issue, and it does make some folks hot under the collar. Including, say, Mayors and Permiting enforcement officials.

The fact that McConnel was arrested for trespassing tends to suggest to me the possiblity that they prefer to try him for a technical violation, rather than the one they were really upset about. Indeed, I wonder about the charge itself,

If you can control the permitting and licensing process, you can bankrupt people who disagree with your political views in a nearly invisible way, so this is a question that needs to be asked. Now, thanks to the good professor, is likely to be a matter of fact to be determined in a court of law.

Even if that is not true, it's the height of sloppiness to simply assume that it would have been possible to simply apply for and get a permit to sell buttons. If nothing else, the possibility of pure administrative indifference and/or incompetence should have crossed some minds.

While I'm not a constitutional scholar, it strikes me as extremely dubious that such a venue could exclude the sale of political materials without running afoul of the Constitution in some way, if the venue is administered directly by the town of Kensington. Were it simply the venue organizers, perhaps it would pass the constitutional sniff test, but once any government becomes involved, it's an iffy proposition.

The other thing that disturbs me about this story is the lack of attribution. "Some people said" he was being "too aggressive." Really? Who? And what, by chance, would this person's political viewpoint be? Note that he's been doing this very thing for months and months. Surely, if the matter is as serious as the arrest would seem to imply, it's serious enough for the facts of the "offense" to be clearly communicated to the media - and on to us. But I feel less informed now than when I was completely ignorant of the entire matter, an hour or so ago.

In the final analysis, when there are conflicts between public policy in public spaces and the rights of free speech, free press and freedom of assembly, the letter of the law should not impede the spirit of constitutional intent. Any restrictions on individual liberty need to be narrowly drawn, with unassailable public policy grounds for such restrictions.

And remember also that the McCain-Fiengold campaign finance reform bill was struck down by the Supremes as an unreasonable limitation on PAID political speech - so if it's true for a few hundred thousand dollar television ad, it should also be true for the choice to buy a one dollar button.

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