Parks as Public Forums

October 26, 2023, Feature, by Paula M. Jacoby-Garrett

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Balancing recreation, interaction and safety

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – United States Constitution, First Amendment

Public spaces always have played a crucial role in the fabric of society, offering a platform for social interaction, free expression and community engagement. Among these spaces, parks have emerged as significant public forums that facilitate recreational activities, dialogue, exchange of ideas and cultural expression. For Associate Professor of Law at Washington University John D. Inazu, J.D., Ph.D., BSE, parks “are government-provided spaces where viewpoints become voices.… They allow citizens and the groups they form to advocate, protest and witness in common spaces.”

A Forum for Free Expression

“People express themselves in parks, whether it’s through a statue, whether it’s through protesting, whether it’s through marches, whether it’s through passing papers out, it’s always their go-to place,” says Roslyn Johnson, the director of Annapolis (Maryland) Parks and Recreation. “People realize and recognize that the parks belong to them. Every single person in the United States is a property owner because they all own the parks collectively.”

Parks as public forums represent an essential intersection of recreation, interaction and community engagement. They hold the potential to foster dialogue, cultural expression and social change while also serving as spaces for relaxation and play. Striking the right balance between these roles requires careful planning, clear guidelines and a commitment to safety, especially with the increase in demonstrations throughout the past several years.

Increasing Park Use for Demonstrations and Protests

People utilizing parks as public forums is essential to who we are as a nation. “The 60th anniversary of the March on Washington occurred recently, which happened in a park. And when we think about all the pivotal changes that have happened in America, they’ve started in parks,” says Johnson.

Johnson believes that everyone has a right to express themselves. In fact, she was asked to sign a permit for the KKK to assemble at a park she managed. As an African American woman, she was asked by her supervisor if she felt uncomfortable with signing it. She gave her permission and signature for the event to occur.

Events like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, George Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement led to a sharp increase in demonstrations, a record 42 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. Most of these events were peaceful, with only 5 percent of protesters engaging in violent behavior. “After the George Floyd murder, many people started to protest and protested in parks. And that’s where people come together,” says Johnson. “It’s a nonpartisan place. It’s a place where people have rights to express their freedom of speech. As park and recreation professionals, we try to find ways to make it safe for everyone.”

Several of these gatherings extend beyond the confines of a single day, some movements spanning years. In the picturesque town of Warrenton, Virginia, a demonstration of civil activism takes shape every week. Commencing on June 20, 2020, and continuing steadfastly ever since, the township’s residents have convened every Saturday to partake in what has become a poignant event — the Black Lives Matter: Vigil for Action.

Safety Considerations

Parks are essential for physical and mental well-being, offering a respite from urban environments. Designating specific areas within parks for gatherings, discussions and performances while maintaining recreational zones allows both functions to coexist harmoniously. The challenge lies in balancing using parks as public forums for interaction and preserving their primary role as recreational spaces.

Safety is paramount in any public space. As parks serve as public forums, ensuring the security of participants and visitors becomes even more crucial. Local authorities should collaborate with event organizers to establish safety protocols, including crowd management, emergency exits, medical facilities and compliance with fire codes. If appropriately deployed, surveillance systems can enhance security without compromising the openness of the space. Guidelines might include regulations for sound amplification, time limits for gatherings, and procedures for leaving the area clean and undamaged. Establishing a transparent permitting process for organized events can help manage conflicting interests and allocate park usage fairly.

Maintaining the integrity of parks as public forums requires establishing guidelines that balance the diverse needs of the community while ensuring the safety and accessibility of the space. For example, protesters set up tents in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan in 2011 as part of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest. Officials later removed them, stating that health and safety concerns had become “intolerable.” While protesters’ free speech was protected, they still needed to abide by park rules, which did not allow camping.

Role of Park Professionals

Organizers and participants should undergo relevant training to ensure the responsible and effective use of parks as public forums. Training might include guidelines on respectful behavior, conflict resolution, waste management and emergency response procedures. Equipping individuals with the necessary tools and knowledge increases the likelihood of successful and safe interactions within the park setting.

Maintaining open lines of communication with our law enforcement counterparts is of utmost importance. “Sometimes law enforcement will get a heads up before we do, and they’ll share it with us,” says Johnson. There are instances when law enforcement agencies receive crucial intelligence about an event prior to park professionals, and they extend their cooperation by sharing their insight. It’s important to highlight that local law enforcement agencies may not have a complete grasp of the laws and regulations pertaining to parks and might require additional information on these matters. Johnson also suggests coordinating with your legal department. “Don’t try to play a lawyer; coordinate with the experts in your county or city or your jurisdictional attorney. Get any legal opinion in writing. Your goal is to cover yourself, to cover your department, and to cover the rights of the people…you serve.”

“Public parks have always been considered the traditional public forum for First Amendment activities. Societal changes have increased demand for access to public parks for a wide variety of free speech and recreational activities,” states James C. Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D, attorney and emeritus associate professor at George Mason University. “Such changes, however, have not altered the fairly well-settled legal principles regarding governmental regulation of public forums in public parks.

“Most legal issues start out with public relations problems. It’s better to ask, ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why?’ A spirit of accommodation, as opposed to opposition or confrontation, can lessen the risk of potentially costly and time-consuming litigation. When confronted with a controversial plan for a public demonstration in a park, a constitutional park permit content-neutral procedure needs to be in place beforehand, not after the fact. In addition, park professionals and their agencies can benefit from examining existing park permit procedures and policies, which have been tested and eventually passed constitutional muster after court challenges,” says Kozlowski. For example, “the Capitol Region of the National Park Service is responsible for managing the National Mall and Lafayette Park across from the White House. The park permit procedures for these ultimate public forums have been tested over time in the federal courts.” “Similarly, large park agencies in New York City and the Chicago Park District have time-tested park permit procedures.

Communication Is Key

Communication is vital for Tommy Cureton, former director of parks and recreation in Warrenton. “We do a great job of communicating with sponsors to understand the exact nature of the use, which allows us to plan in advance for and understand if there may be a need for traffic control, security, additional staffing, etc. [In addition], approximately 12 months ago, we created an ordinance that guides the use of public grounds to address the different types of use that may occur in town. This provided great direction for staff when determining how each type of event or gathering is classified and is a great tool for informing the public of how we define the use of public grounds. I believe that communication is a key component to ensuring successful opportunities for parties interested in the use of public spaces. We almost ‘overcommunicate’ with parties to reduce the opportunity for failures during use.”

Cureton adds, “We offer rental opportunities at each of our parks and facilities. We ask when contacted by a sponsor for an ‘organized public gathering,’ that they complete a Special Event Application or Facility Rental Application for the use. If applicable, we may waive fees for use, depending upon the nature of the use, but it helps us have a better understanding of the type of use that may take place at a park or facility on a given day or at a given time.”

Training for Organizers and Participants

“We conduct role-playing scenarios with our team members during departmental staff meetings. We focus on several aspects of what quality leadership looks like and how leadership is not ‘positional’ within our organization,” says Cureton. “One component of these discussions is managing conflict and conflict resolution. We advise our team to look into training opportunities and try to provide options we think will serve them well. Additionally, we really focus on how we can become ‘more comfortable being uncomfortable.’ We do our best to provide the tools necessary to achieve this goal.”

Cureton continues, “First and foremost, we have to be open and listen to the concerns. I continue to bring it up, but again, communication is key. I’ve found in my career that, oftentimes, complaints are somewhat of a litmus test for how we are performing. Being open and listening can help us identify ways in which we can improve. With that said, we all know that not everyone will be happy with the decisions, rules, procedures or policies that are created, but the important part is being willing and able to explain why something is the way it is. [For] online inquiries/reactions, we’ve trained our team to only respond to questions. We can’t control opinions and, as such, do not respond to them. We only respond when asked a specific question and, depending on the questions, will guide how we approach providing a response.”

Balancing Priorities and Fostering Belonging

For Johnson, it’s a balancing act. “It’s very hard to balance [opinions] because the community could feel one way. The person who’s in charge could feel another way. And then the law states something completely different. So, whether or not I’m for or against [a topic or issue] doesn’t make a difference. I have to allow this person to legally carry out what the Constitution says they have a right to. So, it is very difficult. And then you have political pressures. And how do you satisfy the politicians? How do you satisfy the law? How do you satisfy your morals and values? And how do you satisfy your staff?”

Implementing programs that harness the potential of parks as public forums can further enrich community engagement. Workshops, cultural festivals and educational seminars can provide opportunities for individuals to share knowledge, experiences and perspectives. These programs foster a sense of belonging and promote cultural diversity, contributing to the enrichment of the community fabric.

As public spaces evolve with the changing needs of society, parks will continue to play a vital role in facilitating human connection and expression, nurturing the bonds that tie communities together. Through thoughtful management, innovative programs and proper training, parks can thrive as inclusive and vibrant forums for public interaction for generations to come.

Paula M. Jacoby-Garrett is a Freelance Writer located in Las Vegas, Nevada.