Vendor says he has a constitutional right to distribute placards opposing sale of land at event held on city street
An outspoken critic of the City of Port Washington’s decision to sell a lakefront parking lot as a site for the Blues Factory entertainment complex said he plans to distribute yard signs opposing the land sale at Saturday’s farmers market despite a notice from the organization that manages the market stating that he cannot do so.
“The farmers market is a public event on a public street managed by a government entity using public money and the constitutional right of free speech applies: You can distribute any sort of political statement you like, no permission needed,” Pat Wilborn, whose company PortFish operates a stand at the market, wrote Tuesday in an email to Port Main Street Inc. Executive Director Lauren Richmond.
The email was in response to a message Richmond sent to Wilborn last week stating: “We also wanted to remind you that the distributing or soliciting of any non-approved or stand-related materials is prohibited at the market.”
During an interview Tuesday, Richmond softened the position of Main Street, which organizes and oversees the popular farmers market held on Main Street.
“Technically, according to federal law, it (distributing signs) is allowed, but we have final say on what is distributed at our market,” Richmond said. “We can remove a vendor for any reason we see fit.
“That said, we absolutely don’t want to do that. We don’t want to take away anyone’s constitutional rights.”
Richmond said Main Street won’t object if Wilborn makes the signs available at his farmers market stand.
“As long as people are not being harassed or being forced to sign something,” she said.
The sign dispute is playing out in the context of a community deeply divided over the Common Council’s unanimous decision Sept. 1 to sell land at the end of the north slip marina along Washington Street to Madison developer Chris Long, who plans a Paramount blues-themed entertainment complex designed to evoke the Wisconsin Chair Co. factory that once occupied the property.
And now the debate threatens to spill over into the area of constitutional rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged there are limitations on where First Amendment rights can be exercised, but it has been clear that the rights of free speech and assembly in public parks and on public streets are essentially unfettered.
In its 1939 decision Hague vs. C.I.O., the court explained, “Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens and discussing public questions.”
Richmond admitted regulating signs and other material that express opinions at the farmers market is a delicate issue.
“It’s a little sticky,” she said. “We understand the market is on city property, but it is our farmers market.”
Richmond said her email regarding the signs was triggered by complaints she received about the manner in which Wilborn was soliciting signatures on petitions opposing the parking lot sale at the farmers market.
“I did get complaints from people who were a little offended about how they were approached,” she said. “The farmers market is supposed to be a social event intended to promote local shopping. Once I start getting calls in the office, we have to start taking a look at what’s going on.”
Richmond said Main Street’s farmers market committee discussed the issue briefly, but the organization’s board of directors has not.
Wilborn said any complaints about how he collected petition signatures at the farmers market were unfounded.
“I certainly wasn’t rude to anyone,” he said.
Aside from clarifying whether people were city residents, Wilborn said, he asked shoppers two questions: Are they aware the city intends to sell the lakefront parking lot and would they be willing to sign the petition opposing it?
Wilborn, who noted that he organizes the winter farmers market in Port, said he understands the value and charm of the summer market and has done nothing to diminish that.
“I certainly don’t want to create an adverse situation,” he said.