Free Speech in Monroe Park Must be Protected

mprvaMonroe Park is the region’s public “commons.” It’s a crucially important site for public political expression. For example, during the Iraq war hundreds of people convened in Monroe Park to express their collective opposition to that war and their desire for peace. In recent years, immigrants and their allies have gathered in Monroe Park to hear stories and statements from immigrant community members and raise their voices for immigration reform. Occupy Richmond was launched in Monroe Park in 2011. Because of its central location, its proximity to VCU, and its size, the park is unique regionally as a space for democratic collective free speech activities. It’s our town square.


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects our right to free expression. But those protections only apply to public spaces. If you try to engage in free speech activities at the shopping mall against the wishes of the owner, you risk arrest and prosecution. Free speech even in public spaces isn’t unrestricted. The government can require a permit for certain activities in parks. And it may hypothetically deny a permit for a rally or demonstration on the basis of considerations including “competing use concerns,” safety or traffic.


City Council voted to approve leasing Monroe Park to a “conservancy” in order to renovate it. City officials have stated in broad and general terms that Monroe Park would still function as a public place. But the devil’s in the details. No one has offered a clear and precise assurance that Monroe Park’s role as our “town square,” as a site of public rallies, demonstrations and other free speech activities, will be protected. In the new and redeveloped Monroe Park, will new competing use considerations or other factors result in permits for rallies being denied? Will the Conservancy itself view rallies as a natural and healthy extension of the new vision for Monroe Park? I hope that they will.


But that isn’t a sufficient guarantee. If the city’s lease to the conservancy stands, it must contain language that is explicit in protecting free speech activities including rallies and demonstrations. Those terms should be made public. More generally, the city should also retain the right to approve whatever improvements the conservancy intends, to ensure that they serve all residents of the city.


I endorse the ACLU of Virginia’s letter to the city asking for clarification of issues surrounding the lease with the Monroe Park Conservancy. As Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the ACLU of Virginia’s executive director, said in a news release: “As public space becomes increasingly scarce, it is essential that we maintain public parks as forums for expression…” The ACLU of Virginia asked whether the park will continue to be available for demonstrations, leafletting, voter registration and the like.


Rallies and demonstrations don’t often get the credit they deserve, in our history textbooks or on the nightly news. But those activities have moved our imperfect country forward again and again, over the years, and have pushed our nation to inch closer to its ideals of equality and inclusivity. They are critical to our democracy.


The changes planned for Monroe Park take place against a larger societal canvas: Our public spaces are shrinking. The modern “village green” is increasingly the private shopping mall or commercial strip. True public spaces including parks are arenas where our freedoms of speech and assembly are protected, where we can exercise the right to voice our opinions collectively…and those spaces, and our right to organize and participate in such activity, must be guarded.


While the goal of renovating Monroe Park is a perfectly valid one, let’s make absolutely sure that that goal is not achieved at the cost of our freedom of speech and assembly in the park.