COVER- Perriello's place: When free speech collides with private property
Victoria Snapp, owner of Three Esthetics, a downtown salon, was growing concerned when some of her regular customers started skipping appointments, and it became apparent politics were causing trouble for her upscale hair coiffery.
"It was turning into a nightmare," says Snapp. "Last week," she says in mid-November, "we had three different assemblies, and the smallest was 17 to 20 people."
It seems that the pro-business protesters who regularly swarm the parking lot to give an earful to Congressman Tom Perriello, Snapp's neighbor in the Glass Building, were putting the hurt on her business.
"We're a full service spa," she explains. "You want to get a massage to step away from the world. The last thing you want to do is go through a screaming crowd while trying to relax."
It wasn't just screaming. On November 10, a bus with a public address system was blaring music that could be heard inside Snapp's treatment room, as health-care reform protesters and counter-protesters tried to outdo each other.
"Here we are trying to peacefully enjoy our business," says Snapp, "and there's no consideration."
The protesters say they have rights too– of the free-speech variety– rights that have collided with a privately owned parking lot in downtown Charlottesville.
A long history
The Charlottesville office of the U.S. Representative for the 5th District has a rich history as the site of citizen protest and the occasional arrests along the way. Much like Virgil Goode drew Code Pinkers, rose-clad activists who protested the war in Iraq, so has Tom Perriello drawn groups like the Jefferson Area Tea Party, one of many grassroots groups opposed to President Obama's stimulus package that sprang up across the country earlier this year. The Tea Partiers frequently appear to exercise their First Amendment rights in protest of government spending, tax increases, and health-care reform–- things they claim will hurt the private businesses that make America great.
Snapp, operating a private business of her own, doesn't claim that the Glass Building–- most famous until now as home to the X Lounge–- isn't big enough for the two of them. Indeed, she has no problem with the exercise of free speech or having Perriello as a neighbor. But when her clients coming to get their hair done find their way to one of her salon's parking spaces blocked by protesters, Snapp feels her rights as a small business owner have been infringed.
A protest of their own
Taking a break from doing facials and waxing, Snapp tells a reporter that she repeatedly and respectfully asked protesters not to block the parking area, where she pays $100 per space–- to no avail.
At one recent protest, the Americans for Prosperity bus snagged eight spaces– without paying a cent for the privilege, Snapp confirms.
The price of parking doesn't tell the whole story. Landlord Lisa Murphy estimates that when a would-be customer is turned away, that costs a business about $150.
"I want to send a clear message," says Murphy. "We are not going to risk safety of people and small children in a small parking lot with cars attempting to get through people while others are pulling out in order for this minority to get media coverage."
Murphy and Snapp launched a protest of their own.
Initially, they say, police didn't think they had jurisdiction to remove protesters from the private parking lot. Then police Chief Tim Longo and Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman stepped in. A week after the bus, the police were on hand when protesters showed up.
"The landlord had decided the amount of traffic had become burdensome," says Chapman. "And that's a function of property owners' rights."
Protesters are now being asked to assemble on the public sidewalk or in Perriello's office.
An advantageous office
One advantage to putting Perriello's office in the Glass Building, says building owner Murphy, is that it comes with four parking spaces–- free for constituents. And that's not always the case for political offices. The previous 5th District Charlottesville office had no parking in front, and visitors had to fend for themselves.
"Often times," says Murphy, "there are only separately paid parking lots nearby that are much more difficult for older and injured veterans and Virginians to get to," says Murphy, lauding Perriello's decision to locate south of the train tracks, in a part of Charlottesville long "neglected."
But now some protesters are feeling not just neglected but corralled.
Bill Hay, founder of the Jefferson Area Tea Party, has been a regular Perriello protester at least once a month since spring, he estimates. And as a small business owner, he's sympathetic to private property rights.
"I do feel our free speech has been somewhat trampled on," he says. "Right now we're limited to the public sidewalk about 100 yards from his office.."
Perriello spokeswoman Jessica Barba explains that Perriello's move of the Congressional office to the Glass Building–- Goode's was about two blocks away on South 1st Street, astride the Downtown Mall–- allows better access and accommodates more people.
"Congressman Perriello strongly supports and believes in the right to free speech and the right of citizens to petition their elected officials, and that's why he held more town hall meetings than any other member of Congress," says Barba, noting that citizens are welcome in the office.
"That's fine if there are 15 people," says Hay. "But if it's 50 or so, you're breaking fire code or trespassing."
Barba suggests that protesters can use the Free Speech monument on the Downtown Mall, and someone from the Congressman's office would attend.
The Free Speech monument is "not as effective because it's not in front of his office," says Hay, also noting that more than 50 people assembling requires a permit. A better solution, Hay suggests, would be for Perriello to move his office to a stand-alone building, such as in Albemarle Square, although that's private property as well.
"There's no perfect place for him," quips Hay, "except out of the 5th District."
The Collins case
In 2005, Rich Collins was passing out pamphlets in front of Whole Foods during his independent run for the House of Delegates. He refused a request from the shopping center property manager to leave, and he was arrested for trespassing. He later was acquitted of trespassing, but was unsuccessful in a civil suit against the center, Shopper's World.
For Collins, the issue is that shopping centers have become public spaces, especially if they have the capacity to handle free speech activities.
"I'm not convinced this was interfering with businesses," says Collins, who supports an expansive field of protest.
Keith Drake, founder of Albemarle Truth in Taxation Alliance and a campaigner for Ivy-area Republican Laurence Verga, who hopes to unseat Perriello next year, says he sides with the notion of being able to petition his Congressman. And if that's a problem, says Drake, the official should move his office.
"What people want is the right to be heard," says Drake, especially by their elected officials.
For two reasons, the Glass Building situation is different from what Collins did at Shopper's World, Drake contends. For one, Collins was "soliciting" as a candidate. Perriello is already an elected congressman "and we have the right to petition him," says Drake.
"It's a very important issue." Asks Drake, "Who trumps, the landowner or the Constitution?"
Rutherford steps in
During the Collins contretemps, the nonprofit Rutherford Institute represented the candidate, and now the civil liberties group's founder, John Whitehead, scolds Perriello.
"He should be accessible," says Whitehead. "Shame on him."
Whitehead calls the location of the Congressman's office on private property "disingenuous," and adds, "That's been used by a lot of people to avoid protesters."
He mentions abortion providers who locate clinics in private, high-rise buildings. "It's an old tactic," says Whitehead.
Citing something called the "heckler's veto," he also questions whether Three Esthetics represents the entire building. "Hecklers," says Whitehead, "cannot veto free speech."
Whitehead is also interested in the situation of Josh Lambert, who's with the UVA College Republicans. Lambert was told by police November 17 he could either stand on the sidewalk or inside Perriello's office.
"It's got nothing to do with property rights," says Lambert. "Sure, the landlady owns the building. But who pays for his office? It's our property. I own a stake in Congressman Perriello's office."
And here's where it gets interesting.
"It's stunningly hypocritical to see ostensible conservatives insisting that they have a right to trespass on private property," writes political blogger Waldo Jaquith on the Jefferson Area Tea Party blog about the group being banned from the parking lot.
"If I were a landlord," continues Jaquith, "and a bunch of angry old men claimed a right to fill up my parking lot and shout, I'd tell ‘em all to go to hell, and I suspect I'd be carrying one of my guns, just to make the point stick. Er...you do still support the right to bear arms, don't you? What with abandoning property rights, I just can't be sure."
Bill Hay points out that landlord Murphy contributed $1,000 to Perriello's congressional campaign, and he thinks her politics are a factor in the Tea Partiers getting the boot from the parking lot while another more left-wing group, allegedly, did not.
Murphy seems incredulous at the suggestion.
"There is no one of any party allowed to stand in front of, in, or block egress to a privately owned parking space that tenants are paying $100 per month for, no matter what party they are from or how much money they gave to local government," she says.
"I would never think," she continues, "because I supported a candidate that I had the right to go onto someone's property and endanger their business and the safety of others to get media attention."
And Murphy questions the business savvy of those who say Perriello should move his office, and wonders whether they know leases are legally binding contracts. "They choose to say things they know are ridiculous in order to get the hype," she declares.
Responding to the complaint that getting forced back to the public sidewalk places protesters farther away from Perriello's office, Murphy wryly notes that the protestors chose to demonstrate in a somewhat hidden parking lot–- and do it on days when the Congressman is working in D.C.
The man who took on Anthem
If anyone in Charlottesville has experience doing protests, that would be Joe Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project, who's made a career of demonstrating for over three decades. In July, he was charged with trespassing at Anthem in Richmond when he asked to speak to a health insurance company representative about the huge increase in premiums levied on the Project. He offers tips for demonstrators, including calling the cops beforehand.
"At any public protest, we always call law enforcement," says Szakos. "One of our goals is safety."
Szakos sees no shame in being told to protest on the public sidewalk, and he reminisces about the "living wage" campaign the Project waged against the Marriott on West Main in 2000-2002.
"When we protested at the Marriott for 107 straight Fridays, it was always clear that you stayed on the sidewalk and not step foot on Marriott property," says Szakos, who met with Chief Longo and went over the rules. New protesters were briefed that they should cross the street at crosswalks, that bystanders had to right to pass on the public sidewalk, and that honking might run afoul of the noise ordinance. Charlottesville has plenty of public property for demonstrations, says Szakos.
"What you want to do with a protest– you want the public to know and the media to know," advises Szakos, lauding another group that seems to have found a formula.
"The anti-war people," he says, "are smart to demonstrate in front of a federal building on a heavily traveled street."
So Szakos is a bit perplexed about the parking lot brouhaha turning into a free speech issue, noting the 21 town hall meetings Perriello has hosted as well as constituent visits to Washington.
"Tom Perriello is about as accessible a public figure as I've ever encountered," says Szakos."The willingness of Congressman Perriello to meet with the public is way beyond most members of Congress.
"Just because you disagree with a member of Congress," he continues, "doesn't mean he should automatically meet with you on your terms. I think we're making a whole lot about nothing."
The Tea Party's Bill Hay doesn't quite see it that way. "We're speaking with the Rutherford Institute," he says, "to see if our rights have been violated."