Rockville, 1, Montgomery County, 0
For those who are keeping score in the battle to see which governments can figure out that a downtown is a public space and must be open to all, the city of Rockville has taken a narrow but firm lead over Montgomery County, which, you'll recall, gave away the store in downtown Silver Spring.
The issue here is whether publicly owned but privately developed downtown retail developments--essentially outdoor shopping malls created to give the public a downtown feeling in a shopping district managed by a for-profit corporation--must allow people to express themselves as they would in any public space--that is, by allowing people to distribute political literature, take photographs, preach their faith, or behave in any way that they would on a street in a naturally occurring city.
While downtown Silver Spring's managers--supported by county officials--continue to insist that they have the right to restrict photography as they see fit, Rockville's authorities are taking the opposite tack, demanding that the developer of the city's new Town Square allow people the full range of free expression that existed on Rockville's streets prior to this development.
Indeed, Rockville City Manager Scott Ullery has now apologized to a political candidate, Drew Powell, who was stopped from taking photos at the new Town Square by a private security guard. Powell was there with his son and took a picture of the young fellow outside, with no stores in the shot. The guard told Powell that the developer had a no-photos policy and that if Powell persisted, the guard would call police and ask that the photographer be arrested for trespassing.
That incident, back in May, led Ullery to make it clear to Federal Realty, the developer, that no such restrictions on free speech would be permitted. And the developer told the city officials that they do not have a no-photos policy.
Ullery wrote in an email on Friday that he checked out the incident with Federal Realty executives and learned that "on May 4 the employee [the aforementioned security guard] observed Mr. Powell taking pictures in the area in front of Beheaders (which is across the plaza from the library). The employee made a judgment on his own to ask Mr. Powell to stop. He supposedly assumed FRIT [Federal Realty] did not want certain photos taken of store fronts. FRIT states the employee made the judgment on his own, but FRIT accepts the blame for not addressing picture taking in their training and policy manual. FRIT has readily agreed to send a letter of apology to Mr. Powell. I've called Mr. Powell and informed him of what I've learned, as well as offered my apology on behalf of the City."
Powell, it turns out, is running for mayor of Rockville, and the current holder of that position, Larry Giammo, questions whether it's plausible that Powell would be the only person ever stopped from taking photos in that section of downtown Rockville. In an email to members of the city council, Giammo also wonders whether it's really necessary for the council to take a stand assuring the public that the Town Square will be treated as public space, despite its private management.
"As for any potential resolution to proclaim our support for the First Amendment of the Constitution, I think it would be wise to first understand what all the relevant facts are regarding the alleged incident," Giammo wrote. "I don't think it would cast the city council or our community in a good light if the two city council members who have aligned themselves politically with Mr. Powell were to try to make this alleged incident into an issue before all of the relevant facts are known."
Whatever the internal politics of Rockville's mayoral contest, the ongoing dispute both in Montgomery County and across the nation about whether privatized public projects--in Rockville, for example, $88 million of the $352 million cost of the downtown development is being paid for by various government agencies--allow developers to cordon off those spaces and declare them restricted speech zones.
Rockville's response to this issue is vastly more encouraging than that of Montgomery County in the Silver Spring case, and anything the city council might do to make its stance in favor of citizens' rights clear is a shot of fresh and welcome action.
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