Arts festival spawns free-speech challenge

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After state rangers at Point State Park recently stopped two Green Party congressional candidates from soliciting petition signatures and twice told a balloon artist that he needed a permit, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the state claiming that it was violating First Amendment rights.

The ACLU was surprised to discover, however, that the rangers were following an old, rarely enforced state regulation that prohibits people from "expression of views" and distribution of printed material in state parks without written permission.

"We never realized or dreamed that the state had a regulation that prohibited political activity or artistic expression," said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania's legal director. "It's kind of the antithesis of freedom."

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources agreed on Tuesday to suspend enforcement of the regulation after a request that day by the ACLU, which received complaints over two weeks from three people at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. The ACLU's letter stated that it would take legal action if the state didn't suspend enforcement.

The regulation, in place since 1971, was devised to maintain public safety, protect others' rights and coordinate activities in parks, said Christina Novak, press secretary for the DCNR.

But Mr. Walczak said that the state cannot require permits for individuals or small groups if they aren't interfering with a permitted event. He added that the actions of congressional candidates Mel Packer and Ed Bortz and balloon artist Kevin Skolnik weren't any different from pushing a stroller or tossing a Frisbee.

Similar complaints to the ACLU have come up before, but the ACLU has handled them on a case-by-case basis with the city instead of the state, Mr. Walczak said. The ACLU decided to contact the state because of the number of complaints it received in two weeks, he added.

The state regulation has not been challenged before possibly because Point State Park is the only "urban" park that the state maintains, and individual or small-group demonstrations are uncommon in rural parks, Mr. Walczak said.


Dante Anthony Fuoco: dfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1538.


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