Nobody wants to be on the side opposite the principled. Especially the Constitutionally principled. Especially the free speech variety.
But if Constitutional history has taught us anything these last two-plus centuries, it’s that the law is always in ongoing need of interpretation. The necessity is as obvious as the societal differences between the 18th and 21st centuries. Core values don’t change, but context always matters. Common sense, perforce, must be a Constitutional complement.
Too bad it was vacated last week in St. Petersburg in that counterproductive vote by city council – the one that could have thrown a lifeline to the badly foundering BayWalk complex.
To recap, the issue was whether to cede a chunk of sidewalk at BayWalk’s entrance to its owners. The step, contained in an ordinance crafted by the staff of Mayor Rick Baker, would have allowed BayWalk’s owners to, in effect, legally remove undesirables from a stretch of public sidewalk. This was aimed at motley gatherings that ranged from animated, anti-war activists to loitering, anti-decorum, patron-chasing punks. That loud, less-than-inviting, sometimes downright intimidating gauntlet was part of the reason for BayWalk’s precipitous fall from downtown-revival catalyst and “town square” to something approaching boarded-up blight monument and clown square.
BayWalk, with its 55,000 square feet of vacant retail and an increasingly problematic Muvico Theaters, had been counting on — and touting the merits of — the ordinance in its tenant-recruiting pitches. BayWalk wasn’t pushing for the elimination of free-speech or its relegation to some Constitution-mocking holding pen. It was pushing for its relocation across the street – where the same audience would still be privy to it – but not accosted or deterred by it.
Common sense should have dictated that such a compromise be welcomed – and enacted. It would not have been a panacea, of course, not in this economy. But it would have sent an unmistakable signal that BayWalk was, indeed, the major priority it was said to be. It would have underscored that BayWalk was a downtown domino too important to fall. And it would have reminded taxpayers that its $20-million investment was still considered a public trust.
Instead, we have a city council with too many members too concerned with appearing to be a Baker rubber stamp and too municipally myopic to see the big, principled picture. Downtown viability, jobs and public investment are at stake; freedom of speech isn’t. To think otherwise speaks volumes.