CityPlace Then and Now: a Decade of Not-So-Free Speech

CityPlace lawyers didn't like the smell of protest.
CityPlace lawyers didn't like the smell of protest.

It all depends on what your definition of free is.

A decade ago, just as CityPlace was planning its grand opening in downtown West Palm Beach, lawyers and developers were debating just how much democracy, in the form of public speech, the new live/work/shop development could tolerate.

"Profit Relegates Free Speech to CityPlace's Back Corner," a headline in the October 24, 2000, edition of the Palm Beach Post trumpeted.Although  CityPlace flacks were painting rosy pictures of a thriving village square, replete with "colorful characters," they didn't want those characters to be, well, too colorful. The new development's lawyers worked late into the night the weekend before the development officially opened to craft "behavior standards" restricting protesters and pamphleteers.

CityPlace protesters get muzzled
CityPlace protesters get muzzled

Rosemary and Hibiscus Streets were clearly public property. Activists could wave signs there till their arms gave out. But things got murkier when it came to the area around the Himmel Theatre and the fountain, where planners envisioned a public "cultural center" that would showcase live music and art shows. As the Post reported at the time:

CityPlace attorney Lyn Harris spent the weekend crafting a set of rules defining free speech in the plaza. The rules state that CityPlace Plaza will be maintained as "a non-public forum, prohibiting picketing, demonstrations, marches, solicitation of signatures or contributions, and other similar forms of public expression of views." The developers plan "to license its use in such a way so as to maximize the overall economic benefit to the CityPlace project." "We didn't want to take any chances," she said.

The rules Harris finally settled on left a ten-by-five-foot island at one corner of the square, where no more than two people could hand out leaflets, and only then with prior permission from management. But Harris didn't quite stitch up the loophole allowing painters at their easels or students wearing T-shirts criticizing puppy mills.

And that's just where the ACLU stepped in last week when it filed a lawsuit on behalf of Loxahatchee artist Bruce Bates, whose unfinished painting of the Himmel Theatre may remain that way. Last August, Bates, who regularly paints on CityPlace property, was told by security guards Brian Gellin and Head of Security Willie Perez* that he was on private property: to pack his brushes and go.

When Bates refused, he was issued a trespass warning "for not having management permission to draw pictures on property." He was told that if he entered anywhere into the 72-acre CityPlace property again, from Okeechobee to Fern Street, he would be subject to arrest. The ban was good for one year.

On Friday, three animal activists joined the ACLU suit. One of them, Michelle Rivera, claims that when she went to dinner at CityPlace, a pet store owner complained about the T-shirt she was wearing, featuring a warning about pet stores and puppy mills. She was summarily marched off the property by two police officers.

The ACLU will argue, in part, that since public bonds were issued to build CityPlace, the plaza is public property; it's merely leased by the CRA to the management company, Palladium at CityPlace. And the old rules Harris spent a weekend writing a decade ago are starting to look pretty moth-eaten. "Noncommercial public expressive activity," completely prohibited under CityPlace policies, remains undefined. The ACLU will argue that a broad application could include talking loudly to a group of friends about politics while walking through the plaza, for instance. Or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Or letting your dog wear a T-shirt dissing puppy mills.

[*CityPlace head of security Willie Perez has a colorful history of his own. We'll update soon.]


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