Welcome to the Free Speech Parking Lot?

If you wanted to exercise your right to free speech this week on Lane County property then you would have found that the Free Speech Plaza was shut down. No problem. The county provided a 71-by-73-foot square in a gravel parking lot off 6th Avenue for free speech use from 6 am to 11 pm from Sept. 6 to 10.

The area was denoted by white lines in the gravel, barricades and a notice from Acting County Administrator Alicia Hays that read, “Any speech activity taking place in the Temporary Free Speech Area shall be contained within the designated 71’ by 73’ painted area.” The county did not send out a press release letting people know about the alternative area. Lane County used a surveyor’s measuring wheel to measure off a spot that spokesperson Anne Marie Levis says is the dimensions of the county’s “actual free speech area.”

Gwendolyn Iris, who has been active in Occupy Eugene and with homeless rights group SLEEPS, walked by the area, which lies between Oak and Pearl downtown, after she had heard rumors of a “Free Speech Parking Lot.” Iris says, “I think it is a complete joke and believe that people within the county government are trying to dodge a lawsuit by providing this temporary free speech zone.”

The county set up the space after it shut down the Wayne Morse Terrace and what has been called the Free Speech Plaza by the public and in county documents. It cited health and safety concerns in regard to the SLEEPS homeless protest camp in the area in front of the county building. The County Commission voted 4-1 with Commissioner Pete Sorenson voting against shutting down the area. Sorenson says, “I think the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza should be open to free press, free speech, free exercise and free assembly. These are important constitutionally protected rights and should not be discarded because some in the community disagree with the content to the speech being advocated.”

The last time the county shut down a SLEEPS protest in the free speech area a Municipal Court Judge ruled in favor of the protesters who argued the shutdown violated their constitutional rights.

Levis says the temporary location “was chosen for proximity to the current free speech area.”

A type of free speech area known as a free speech zone came under fire during the George W. Bush administration when small areas were set up for protesters far from the media and politicians. Bush was criticized for trying to keep dissent invisible.