Public-Private Partnerships and Free Speech

We differentiate between the government, private, and charitable/social service sectors for a reason. We need all three in a robust democracy. They all serve different functions and are subject to different rules.

While we’re fighting to protect so much else, let’s protect that distinction as well.

Discovery Green, the verdant downtown Houston park that sprouted where once there was only a lunar hellscape of surface parking lots, is often mentioned as a location for rallies and protests.

Sometimes, the park does agree to host political events. As Pokemon Go players discovered last year, however, the park can also shut people out.

If you ask the average Houstonian on the street, they would likely tell you that Discovery Green is a city park.

True. Sort of.

While the land the park sits on is the property of the City of Houston, the programming and rules are controlled by the Discovery Green Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) public charity.

Public may be in the name, but that doesn’t make the space a public one. Public charities do not have the same obligation to accommodate first amendment activities as government entities do.

Governments can put content-neutral restrictions on free speech activities, like requiring that any group wishing to use amplified sound get a sound permit, but they cannot abridge the right of free speech.

Non-governmental entities, on the other hand, like the conservancies that run so many of our heavily-used parks—Memorial Park, Hermann Park, Buffalo Bayou Park—can put whatever restrictions they wish on those activities, and refuse to host those they would prefer not to support.

Public-private partnerships have been all the rage on the civic development and beautification front. We praise the generous donors who support them, as we should.

We should be mindful, however, that we need those donations because of our short-sighted fixation on cutting taxes. Our elected officials have had to seek funding elsewhere, and the price we have paid is the relinquishment of full public rights in public parks.

This surrender of public land and public space has foreclosed upon our options for protest.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the frothing hyena on the House Oversight Committee who attacked Hillary Clinton for her private email server before abruptly retiring from Congress to become a Fox News commentator, kicked off 2016 by sponsoring a bill that would have authorized the sale of 3.3 million acres of public land across ten states. After widespread public outcry, he announced via Instagram that he is withdrawing the bill.

Millions of acres of land draws attention that acre and half-acre parcels do not. If we allow the privatization of public spaces to continue, we will lose more than glorious parkland and scenic vistas. We will lose the public square, a vital ingredient in our civic stew.

We, the people, could refuse to allow our government to sell our right to free speech for the sake of a splash pad and dog run. Yet another issue to monitor, another item to search for on city council agendas, and perhaps a question for a future referendum. As someone once said, and Thomas Jefferson may have also said later, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

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