2009/08/26: Call for a Coalition to Defend Free Speech in Madison

Call for a Coalition to Defend Free Speech in Madison



Community groups in the Madison area often depend on literature tables in public spaces to inform people about causes, issues, events and neighborhood concerns. While past practices have led many of us to assume we have the right to table in a public space, this right is now under threat. Over the past several years the City of Madison has begun to more strictly enforce a policy of requiring costly paid permits--typically $50--for each occasion of information tabling on public sidewalks. The main ordinance used by the City to prevent free tabling is Ordinance 10.25 (1) prohibiting the placing of articles on sidewalks (see below). This supposedly urgent prohibition is of course waived if organizations or individuals are able to pay the costly permit fees.


Organizations and individuals tabling without having paid such fees have also been cited for vending without a license. This policy is now being enforced even in traditional Free Speech areas such as the State Street/UW Library Mall and Peace Park on State Street and activists tabling in these places without a permit have increasingly been ticketed in the past several years. Musicians and artists performing on State Street and in the downtown have been similarly harassed by the City in its drive to “clean-up” the downtown and to further privatize and commercialize the use of public space.


Let us recall that tabling on University of California at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza was a key flashpoint in the historic Free Speech Fight there in 1964 which inspired similar struggles elsewhere. Free tabling for political and civic-advocacy causes on Madison’s State Street/UW Library Mall and in Peace Park was no doubt tolerated for years as a concession to the student and community protest movements of the Sixties and Seventies. However, the City Vending Dept was reportedly told several years ago by the City Attorney’s office to no longer tolerate this practice. The City’s increasingly restrictive policy will by implication extend to the broad new pedestrian mall being constructed from the State Street/UW Library Mall over former Murray Street to the Kohl Center.


Why is This a Crucial Issue of Free Speech?


We say that expensive permits may be valid for business and commercial enterprises where proceeds from sales of goods can cover the cost of the permits. However, requiring such permits privatizes public space, privileges business and commercial interests over not-for-profit community groups (especially small and under-funded groups) and inhibits them from getting their ideas out to the public mainstream. We hold that the effective exercise of free speech is crucial for a healthy democracy. The rights of public expression--i.e. the right to speak, leaflet and petition--are generally guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, why should this not include a reasonable right to information tabling in municipal public spaces?


It is not sufficient for a individual to be able to stand on a sidewalk and hand-out a flyer. Not-for-profit civic-advocacy organizations should be allowed to display and distribute an array of information with the practicality and convenience made possible by using tables. Allowing such tables is good for our community. Instead of discouraging the free flow of ideas in public spaces the City should accommodate the effective exercise of such Free Speech in municipal public spaces wherever reasonably possible. In a society dominated by corporate-controlled media and private mall-based shopping our municipal public spaces are vital for accommodating ideas and causes which are not valued from a purely commercial and profit-making perspective. 


And this right is important not only for political- and social-advocacy causes but also for the neighborhood garden club, the bike federation, the charity, and other civic organizations who may wish make use public information tabling in other areas of Madison besides the downtown and where tables can be set-up without obstructing pedestrian traffic and where current City's permit policy would hamper them from reaching their neighbors. For all these reasons we need a change in City ordinance(s) and regulations to clearly allow political/nonprofit literature tabling on City sidewalks and in other municipal public spaces as long as other sidewalk and public space users are not obstructed.


But Won't This Create “Chaos”?


We don't think so: the principle here is to accommodate all civic-advocacy, political, and not-for-profit users while insuring safe passage of everyone on the sidewalks, particularly those in wheelchairs. The size and exact placement of tables could be a matter of negotiation. In the unlikely event there are problems with too many tables we can explore ways this could be regulated. The City could help the process and reduce staff-time needed for this issue by putting together a list of suggested do’s and don’ts for tabling to best accommodate all.


The Main Ordinance Change Needed


Below is the relevant text from the main City ordinance being used to obstruct information tables along with an example of what type of textual change could be used to amend it to protect literature tables (of course we realize that the eventual amendment language may differ from the language herein suggested):


**Existing text of the relevant ordinance**




(1) Unlawful to place articles on sidewalk. Except as permitted in other provisions of these ordinances, no person shall place or deposit on any sidewalk or terrace or in any roadway any cask, box, crate, wood, stone, plank, boards, goods, wares, merchandise, ashes, bottles, cans or other substances or materials.


**Possible proposed amendment to the ordinance**


This provision shall not prohibit the temporary placement of a table of reasonable size by not-for- profit groups or persons for the purpose of displaying literature for distribution so long as such table does not seriously impede regular pedestrian traffic.






We call on all organizations and individuals concerned with the effective exercise of Free Speech in Madison to join us in seeking a Madison Common Council amendment of City Ordinance 10.25 and any other ordinances or regulations which prohibit or hamper the reasonable use of information tables on public sidewalks and other usable public spaces by civic-advocacy, political, or other not-for-profit groups. We ask that you join us in circulating the following petition and carrying-out other community education to build public support for City ordinance amendment and for other actions which may be necessary to defend the effective exercise of Free Speech in Madison.




We the undersigned believe that  the effective exercise of First Amendment rights of Free Speech and the free flow of information in a healthy democracy includes reasonable use of information tables by civic-advocacy, political, and not-for-profit organizations on City of Madison sidewalks and in other municipal public spaces. Any municipal or local government ordinances, regulations, or policies obstructing this right should be rescinded, including sweeping prohibitions of such activity, unwarranted abridgements, and charging of fees to exercise that right. 


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