This is the 200 block of Central Avenue in Downtown St. Pete. The sidewalks and Central Avenue itself are owned in common by the rest of the residents of St. Pete and me. In other words, it's public property. As public property, I can assemble freely there and so long as I'm obeying the laws, no one can make me leave should I want to stand on that sidewalk.
These rights are guaranteed me by the First Amendment to the Constitution with the following words:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This means that I can also stand there with a group of like- or unlike-minded people. We can hold signs if we want to protest something. We can pass out leaflets advocating a cause. Or we can just stand there and take in the scenery.
Our right to assemble is guaranteed by Sections Four and Five of the Florida Constitution:
SECTION 4. Freedom of speech and press.—Every person may speak, write and publish sentiments on all subjects but shall be responsible for the abuse of that right. No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press. In all criminal prosecutions and civil actions for defamation the truth may be given in evidence. If the matter charged as defamatory is true and was published with good motives, the party shall be acquitted or exonerated.
History.—Am. proposed by Constitution Revision Commission, Revision No. 13, 1998, filed with the Secretary of State May 5, 1998; adopted 1998.
SECTION 5. Right to assemble.—The people shall have the right peaceably to assemble, to instruct their representatives, and to petition for redress of grievances.
The rights to free assembly and to petition grievances are a fundamental part of what makes my citizenship so valuable. However those same rights are what make our representative democracy so messy. Some people take offense at protests and some people will take great pains to silence opposition.
Opposition and dissent aren't just rights though, they're obligations. Any attempt to silence public dissent or to thwart the right to free assembly is a threat to you, regardless of your politics.
This is Main Street in Lakewood Ranch, a master planned community around 30 miles to my south in Bradenton, Fl. It looks like a main street anywhere but there are some notable and important differences.
For starters, the sidewalk, the street, the buildings and the trees aren't owned in common by the people of Bradenton. They're owned by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. Shroeder-Manateee Ranch, Inc is the corporation that developed Lakewood Ranch. This makes Lakewood Ranch's Main Street a Potemkin Village and private property. As such, the First Amendment to the US Constitution and Articles Four and Five of the Florida Constitution do not apply.
Residents of Lakewood Ranch who want to stand on that corner can be escorted off that corner for any reason at all. If they want to protest something or hand out leaflets, they can't. There's no right to free speech nor is there a right to redress of grievances.
I'm sure most people who move to planned communities never think about that, but there's a great big and often hidden trade off to moving to a place that seems so peaceful. Residents of such places can't exercise some pretty fundamental aspects to what makes the United States unique.
I think about this often and I'll never understand why anybody would willingly move to a place that operates under some kind of corporate martial law. Is not having to rub shoulders with your social lessers worth it? That's a rhetorical question.
All of this came to a head in Florida on May 26th, 2011. Florida Governor Rick Scott held a budget signing ceremony in the center square of a master planned community called The Villages.
Rick Scott has a nearly pathological need to avoid dissent and as someone with a 29 percent approval rating six months after taking office I can almost see why. Almost.
Anyhow, Governor Scott chose to sign the new state budget in front of one of his few constituencies, rural retirees. In order to do it, he had to hold a budget signing on private property for the first time in Florida's history. That's OK, though. The Villages' central square is just like a town square anywhere, right?
On May 26th, the Republican Party of Florida leased The Villages' central square and before the actual ceremony started, the Republican Party of Florida instructed the Sumter County Sheriff's department to sweep the crowd and remove anybody who didn't support the Governor. Here it is, caught on video:
More than a dozen people were escorted off the property, even though those escorted were association dues-paying residents of The Villages.
When confronted about it, Governor Scott's office denied removing anybody and then when they couldn't deny away that video footage, they claimed that no one knew what actually happened that morning. Here are some news links from the end of May that describe the events in detail. Here. Here. Here.
As appalling as it is that Governor Scott decided to have his ceremony on private property, it probably didn't violate any laws. It certainly violated decency and the fundamental way American government is run, but all he and his supporters were doing was taking advantage of private property laws. They were also playing on the widely held misperception that the centers squares in planned communities are public spaces. The folks who were removed from the budget signing know that first hand that there's nothing public about a pretend town square in a planned community.
Our rights to things like free speech, free assembly and redress of grievances are as fundamentally sacred as they are non-partisan. Political winds shift all the time and the party in power today usually isn't there for very long. What never changes, or at least shouldn't change, are the fundamentals of what make us, us.
Someone who's holding a sign you don't agree with isn't your enemy. You may find it reprehensible or you may agree with what ever's on that sign, but the holder is not your enemy. That sign holder is your fellow citizen, however mistaken you may think he is. Your real enemy is someone who seeks to remove the sign and silence what's he's trying to say.
Public spaces and the public sphere don't come back once they're gone. As more and more master planned communities spring up around the country, think about the implications of all of town squares that aren't really town squares at all. How do you keep a representative democracy alive in all those privately held "towns" and "town squares?"