In the heart of historical Philadelphia, along the route of the Constitutional Walking Tour, in the shadow of old buildings where titans of political thought debated the very foundations of our glorious republic , on the doorstep of the Liberty Bell itself, a strange rule applies: To exercise free speech, you need a permit.Pennsylvania Friends of Animals (PFA) discovered this on Sept. 5, when a smattering of them — fewer than 20, they say — gathered on the sidewalk at the intersection of Fifth and Chestnut streets to protest the alleged cruelty endemic in the horse-and-carriage industry. Not long into their sainted exercise of free speech, however, a park ranger walked over and told them they had to leave. Well, sorta. Actually, they had to walk across the street, to the intersection's northeast corner; the other three corners, it turns out, fall within the jurisdiction of the Independence National Historical Park, property of the National Park Service, where the First Amendment only loosely applies.
Evan M. Lopez
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PFA was not happy about this. They wanted to be everywhere the horse-drawn carriage operators were, according to Brandon Gittelman, the anti-horse-drawn-carriage campaign coordinator. (That's his actual job title.) Also, there was the principle of the thing. So, the group turned to the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which interceded and obtained a special permit for PFA from park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod. That permit gives them access to all corners of Fifth and Chestnut they requested, as well as Liberty Bell Avenue — the stretch of Sixth Street between Market and Chestnut.
All of these, we should note, are already, ostensibly, public sidewalks.
Here's more weirdness: As best we can tell, there's nothing that says PFA needs a special permit to be there in the first place. While Independence Park does have rules governing where such gatherings may and may not take place, public affairs officer Jane Cowley says that "those corners are not off-limits to public gatherings. But each of our park rangers has to make a decision on the ground about whether their gathering here constitutes any sort of safety threat to the public. In this case, the rangers thought, 'Here the mall's available, why can't they move to the open area?'"
That begs a rather obvious question: Is a ranger's observation that "another area is available" really sufficient justification to curtail a group's right to assemble? Is this what James Madison had in mind?
PFA, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and park officials are "in discussions to permanently change some of the rules," says Gittelman. The group's demands aren't steep. They just want any and all non-violent groups to have relatively unrestricted access to these sidewalks, so long as the crowds don't get out of control. But Cowley, the park's flack, says negotiations are over and the park won't be making any rule changes. And, she adds,"I don't know that any group would be permitted" the access that PFA already won, because " who knows who'd be coming down the pike?"
After all, it's not like that whole free-speech thing was designed to protect unpopular speech ... oh, wait.
A Million Calls
There are two — yes, only two — ways to judge the millionth call to the city's 311 call center, which, according to our calculations, had been made sometime earlier this month; let's say Nov. 10 at 2:36 p.m., give or take a couple weeks. The first possibility is that in creating a streamlined intake of all complaints and requests for information, and requiring only the memorization of three digits, the city has opened the floodgates to every imperious gripe about cracks in the sidewalk and stray cats and ugly buildings, and enabled the laziness of those who don't feel like opening a phone book to find the number for the Streets Department. Take a look at the calls that were made between Oct. 12 and 17 (the last week for which data is available): 77 percent of all calls were for "General Information/Directory Assistance." Since the beginning of the year, the call center has logged the greatest number of calls on behalf of the Police Department (15 percent) and the Municipal Court (12 percent), which both have their own phone numbers.
There is, however, a second possibility, and one we'd rather believe, because we're eternal optimists: 311 has ushered in a new era of civic engagement. People may be calling for little more than a willing ear to bitch at, but that's the city's job, and finding the right number for the right person to bitch at in a city agency is sometimes as easy as getting to the center of the Labyrinth and back again. Not to mention that the city got 311 up and running for around $2 million, according to planphilly.com, compared to the $25 million it takes to get comparable programs started in other cities. So, yay us.