Plazas are public spaces

Pub date January 24, 2012

EDITORIAL The attack on public space has been underway for years now in San Francisco. Parks and recreation centers have been turned into pay-to-enter facilities rented out to private organizations. The sit-lie law restricts the use of public sidewalks. Occupy protesters have been evicted from a public plaza. And now, Supervisor Scott Wiener wants to put new restrictions on the mini-parks and plazas that have been a rare bright spot in the battle to reclaim the streets.

Wiener has introduced legislation that would ban camping, cooking, four-wheeled shopping carts, and the sale of merchandise in Harvey Milk Plaza and Jane Warner Plaza, near Market and Castro. He argues that the two parklets — one reclaimed from what had been roadway — are in legal limbo: They aren’t parks, so the city’s park codes don’t apply, and they aren’t sidewalks, so rules like the sit-lie law don’t apply, either.

But there are serious problems with the Wiener legislation. For one thing, it’s clearly directed at homeless people — the ban on shopping carts makes no sense at all except for the fact that a lot of homeless people carry their possessions in those carts. And the ban on camping (which isn’t a problem right now in the two plazas) could be used to prevent an Occupy-style action in the Castro.

The ACLU says there are serious constitutional issues with the bill. In a Jan. 21 letter, ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye notes that the ban on the sale of merchandise without a permit could “burden expressive activity.” And she explains that the shopping cart rules have exceptions for bicycles, strollers, and two-wheeled carts, but “it is wholly unclear why some but not other wheeled conveyances are singled out for prohibition, other than to restrict the activities of an unpopular group.”

A letter signed by 21 members of the Harvey Milk Club, including co-founders Harry Britt and Cleve Jones, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, and eight past club presidents, points out that “the interests of the LGBT community have always been united with the interests of public space. As a community that is forced—far too often and for far too long—to spend much of our collective lives ‘in the closet,’ the ability to be free in public spaces has been tremendously liberating. Harvey Milk knew that liberation was only possible if we escaped the shadows of anonymity and invisibility. When we restrict these spaces—even when those restrictions are meant, initially, to be applied to another group of people—we damage ourselves.”

The issue goes far beyond the Castro. There are a growing number of small plazas in the city, part of the popular and successful Pavement to Parks Program — and the last thing the city should be doing is putting undue restrictions on their use.

Wiener, to his credit, has been in touch with the ACLU, and amended his original proposal to exempt the sale of newspapers and other printed material. But that doesn’t solve the First Amendment issues — for example, would the sale of t-shirts with political slogans be banned? Could the city decide which political candidates or causes could get a permit and which couldn’t?

The whole thing seems like a solution in search of a problem. The plazas, like most of the city’s parklets, are for the most part clean and well-maintained community gathering spots that don’t need new rules or restrictions. The supervisors should reject the Wiener legislation.