Baltimore police tell teacher to stop leafleting at Inner Harbor

Dispute highlights eight-year-old dispute over free speech

May 27, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Bruce Friedrich, a teacher and a member of an animal-rights group, wants people to eat vegetarian. And so last Sunday he and six like-minded friends handed out more than 1,000 leaflets near the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor.

Their attempt to educate tourists and shoppers about their cause lasted about an hour. Security guards asked them to leave. Friedrich, who lives in Remington, said a Baltimore police officer threatened to arrest him, and even pulled out his handcuffs.

The ninth-grade teacher at Baltimore Freedom Academy, a city charter school, was unwittingly caught up in a pitched battle over what can be said, how it can be said and where it can be said at Baltimore's premier waterfront attraction.

What may seem like a cohesive, unrestricted promenade actually contains a hidden patchwork of quasi-private and public spaces, with different rules in different places governing demonstrations, distributing leaflets, begging, vending and soliciting.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in federal court in 2003 over what it says are restrictive free-speech rules in what it regards as a public park. Eight years later, the two sides are still engaged in talks meant to clarify how the First Amendment applies to the Inner Harbor.

"We're looking forward to the lawsuit being settled so everyone knows what the rules are," said Laurie Schwartz, the head of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a group that promotes the harbor, helps to keep it clean and employs security guards.

She said that when the lawsuit is finally settled, "We've asked for attorneys involved to conduct extensive training for our guides and for police. There are a lot of various park rules specific to the harbor, and nuances within those rules."

David Rocah, a staff attorney with Maryland's ACLU chapter, considers the entire harbor area public space. "The rules are not the only relevant issue here," he said. "There's also a Constitution to consider."

Regardless of which business or institution claims ownership of a particular spot along the waterfront, Rocah said, "it doesn't change my view of it being a public forum where traditional First Amendment free-speech rules apply."

He described settlement negotiations as "agonizingly slow" but said "we're a hair's breadth away from resolving the case." William R. Phelan Jr., an attorney with the city solicitor's office, agreed that a settlement is near.

One matter already settled is McKeldin Square, a brick plaza at the southeast corner of Pratt and Light streets. That is the designated "protest zone," where up to 25 people can gather without a permit and demonstrate. More people can assemble there with a permit.

When police officers ordered protesters holding "Peace is Patriotic" signs to disperse in September 2009, city officials quickly admitted that they had erred, apologized and ordered the officers to remedial training.

But what happened to Friedrich on May 22 is more difficult to resolve.

Aside from being a teacher, he also is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, though he said that on that day he was handing out leaflets on his own. He was joined by his wife, Alka Chandna.

Friedrich said the group was on a pedestrian bridge between the power plant and the Aquarium — in what is known as Area 10. The aquarium defines it as the space in front of its main building between the ticket booth and the World Trade Center and extending to Pratt Street. The ACLU says Area 10 is limited to a grassy area near the ticket booth.

The teacher contends that the Waterfront Partnership allows people to hand out noncommercial material in Area 10. Schwartz and an aquarium spokeswoman say it does not. They say that Area 10 is a city-owned parcel of land leased to the aquarium, and they treat it as private property.

"We have jurisdiction over that area," said aquarium spokeswoman Jen Bloomer. "We have the right to control the activities that go on there. We reserve the right to stop all activity. … We're very polite in the way we interact with these individuals. We give them advice on where they can go."

Being precise about locale is vital. The rules — called "special conditions for Inner Harbor Park, Inner Harbor Park Promenade and Waterfront Promenade" — require GPS-like knowledge to comprehend.

Leafleting, according to those rules by the Department of Recreation and Parks, "may occur only on the interior one-half ('landside') of the Promenade from the concrete strip immediately west of the World Trade Center to the point where the Promenade turns to the southwest and from where the Promenade turns from the southwest to the south and then east up and including Rash Field."

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