In the event you missed it, a variety of people carrying petitions to address their government were warned last night by Little Rock police that they would be arrested if they not only attempted to gather signatures but even talked to anyone about their petitions on the streets blocked off around the Riverfest grounds along the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock.
Riverfest Inc., the private nonprofit that rents the park for the annual music festival, has an agreement with the city that allows it, I'm told, to prevent commercial vending and political petitioning not only in the park itself but on streets barricaded for closure around the park, though pedestrian access is unlimited. The map below indicates how broad this area is. This rule, in theory, prevents me from asking people to sign a petition as I stand in front of the entrance to my office at Markham and Scott. I'd be willing to argue against a limitation on political speech within Riverfest grounds to which admission is required. But I don't see a way in the world the city of Little Rock can cede control of political speech on public thoroughfares to Riverfest on the ground that they are closed to vehicles so as to ease access to a controlled entertainment venue nearby. The city could contract all manner of unconstitutional power to Riverfest, but it doesn't make it legal.
As noted last night, all types of speech are underway on Clinton Avenue in the River Market district. But only those with political petitions were threatened with arrest for exercising their speech. I note with interest that a commercial business, the Kum and Go convenience chain, is exercising commercial speech by running up and down Markham Street with pedicabs branded with the store logo. Their branded vehicles are NOT barred from the closed streets. The chairman of Riverfest this year is married to an executive at Cranford Johnson, the ad and PR firm that represents Kum and Go, just FYI. Ah, but he says Kum and Go is a "sponsor." So the city allows Riverfest to sell speech to some but prohibit others. No way this can stand legally.
If Kum and Go can exercise free speech on Clinton Avenue — and get an exception to the vehicle closure rule — then I think people hoping to gather petitions for an improved ethics law, for a gas severance tax increase, for medical marijuana and for expansion of casino gambling could be given freedom to use the public street for a less intrusive and constitutionally favored purpose. Our founding document values speech above pedicabs, believe it or not.
If not — and the response from Mayor Mark Stodola and other city leaders last night was non-existent (all seem to point to the unconstitutional contract and past practices at Riverfest as justificationi for an unconstitutional practice) — the question is what now? There's a lot of interest in forcing police action — multiple arrests, for example. But there's greater interest, I think, in allowing free speech to flourish, if not by a recognition of city leaders that the 1st Amendment should take precedence over the delicate political sensibilities of Riverfest organizers, then by court action. But the damage might be done by the time that can be accomplished.
It is a sad day for Little Rock. You need only attend Riverfest to understand the burden this places on petitioners to be forced to the unlighted fringes of a vast area, rather than being allowed to operate where the bulk of the people are. Meetings are scheduled this morning on further action.