COVER- Perriello's place: When free speech collides with private property


The November 10 protest that brought the Americans for Prosperity bus and a counter-protest by health reform supporters may have been the tipping point for Glass Building tenants.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE

Bill Hay will move his protest to the public sidewalk, but he's not happy about it.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE

Ben Marchi traveled the 5th District to protest Tom Perriello's vote on healthcare reform in a bus that took eight private parking spaces at the Glass Building.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE

More and more, Victoria Snapp found the nine parking spaces she rents for her customers to Three Esthetics occupied by protesters.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

The parking lot behind the Glass Building is quieter now that protesters have been asked to take it to the public sidewalk.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

Congressman Tom Perriello (in red tie) met with angry Tea Partiers in May in his Charlottesville office.
PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES

HOOK STAFF

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."

Contributing factors?

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."

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12 comments

What amazes me with this story, is that people such as Mr. Hay & Mr. Rutherford seem to be saying it should be a right to flaunt the law (trespassing on private property in the name of free speech) without any consequences of doing so. Mr. Hay says he supports the rights of small businesses, yet feels his rights have been abridged when he and others were asked to move to the public area near the building (the sidewalk).

The last time I looked, no one's right to free speech has been abridged. Neither have people been silenced by the police or any other law enforcement agency. Neither has the state or federal government silenced them.

If a group thought I was the most evil person on the earth, and felt the need to protest me, should they also have the right to come onto my private property to do so, without me having the ability to have them removed as the law allows? Much like private homes, businesses are more than welcome to remove a person or persons if they feel they are affecting their business (or privacy in the case of a homeowner) in an adverse manner. Or ask that they move to public property.

From this article, however, it seems that people like Mr. Hay feel that since this is a free speech issue, he and his fellow protesters should be exempt from the law. If this is not the way he or they feel, by all means, please explain yourselves.

What amazes me about this story, is what the article left out. The irony that we're talking about private property rights in the city's largest urban renewal zone. The reporter knows about it but doesn't want to let newcomers know the background, instead preferring them to think Vinegar Hill was the only such project. It would take only one sentence to report this subtext.

...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....

At least on one occasion, July 2, Perriello was scheduled to speak at UVA a couple hours after the protest but claimed to be out of town. UVA's in the county.

...says Murphy, lauding Perriello's decision to locate south of the train tracks, in a part of Charlottesville long "neglected." (sic)...

How long has this neighborhood been "neglected"? Garrett St. was developed 1860 and site of Garrett Square/Friendship Court developed 1915. The public housing project opened 1979. How has this part of town been neglected? Neglected by whom?

"A long history"- only goes back one congressman. Doesn't mention Goode's office was vandalized. Perriello's has not been.

..."and I suspect I'd be carrying one of my guns, just to make the point stick."...

It's the left who introduce threats of force and violence. Turn that around. What if 20 protesters showed up with rifles and side-arms? It would be national news because it fits the liberal template to demonize "contrarians". It is they who peddle fear and make implied threats of violence.

Turn it around again. What would have happened if the homeowners and businesses in early 1970s had answered the sheriff's knock on the front door with a loaded gun? What will the modern businesses adjacent Perriello's office do when the govt comes for their property? They'll say it's perfectly legal. But is it Constitutional?

"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." I guess the young man is saying that the public has the right to access all subsideized housing at will.
Thanks, Blair, for adding a proper historical perspective.

If one were to ask whether her $1,000 donation to Congressman Periello's campaign helped win a long-term lease to her property under question--at tax-payers' expense--, her response would be "some people add one and one together, and get two--how dare they?"

"And then they question whether I have
another motive in calling the police when anti-Periello protesters show up at the space I have so profitably leased to him after making such a donation (although the lease payments are made by taxpayers)--how dare they?"

The lady doth protest too much to be credible.

I'm sort of embarrassed for John Whitehead and the Rutherford Institution if the article is accurate. Did he really condemn abortion clinics for locating where they choose or attempt to smear Perriello by associating his name with abortion providers? Both are pretty lame and hardly what I'd expect from someone who I've long had a lot of respect for even when I didn't agree with him.

Anonymous, you act like you think $1000 is big money in the world of campaigns. You make far too little sense to be credible, but then that's not uncommon for the teabag crowd.

No one is stopping protest, they are just saying to keep the hell out of the parking spaces that they pay for. The right to private property is very clearly enshrined in the Constitution: "No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." These guys are trying to claim private property for a public use simply by making a nuisance of themselves. That just doesn't fly.

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 anywhere they want in any number at any time and blaring amplified sounds regardless of the effect it has on anyone else. And forget peaceably.

Oh, this is such a ridiculous distortion.

First, it's the right-wingers - the "tea party" crowd - who pioneered this private-property-to-avoid protest technique - see Bush-Cheney and the cited Anthem case. The right wingers, screaming and bleating about how unfair Code Pink (et al) were, pioneered the private property technique, and did it pre-emptively. Sorry you don't like the outcome, maybe you shouldn't have started it.

In this case, it appears that neither the Spa owner nor the landlord did anything until they were forced to react to the disruption.

Furthermore, it's the right-wingers who've been showing up armed at these Tea Party protests - not just threatening to defend their private property rights with force - but actually showing up armed.

Finally, it is precisely "Property Rights" this crowd is screaming about protecting from "Socialism". Blair's "historical perspective" about the enforcement of property rights in an Urban Renewal Zone just underscores this: weren't you guys critical of that, seeking the enforcement of private property rights? Why aren't you cheering for this?

It amazes me you guys can actually figure out how to put your pants on in the morning, you're so turned around on EVERY SINGLE ISSUE. How do you know which leg to put where? You've twisted black into white, up into down and left into right.

I know, I know, it's only a criminal, socialist and unconstitutional scandal when the other guys does it. Methinks thou dost protest too much.

Mr. Whitehead is generally better than this.

A chance to protest government waste, calling on all concerned citizens, to protest the lawsuit against private businessman, Peter Van der Linde.

Wed, Dec. 16th 2pm Free Speech Monument

The only witness in the government case is now in jail.

Please contact everyone you know who cares about the way your tax dollars are spent

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2009/12/10/jury-verdict-rwsas-...

Blah, blah, blah. Who cares? Little Tommy Boy, who represents his party's views rather than those of his constituents, will be history come Nov 2, 2010. Watching his (and his tin ear's) downfall will be sweet.

One point omitted from this discussion thus far is that sidewalks are traffic rights-of-way. If protesters are allowed to stand in sidewalks, potentially blocking walking traffic, they should also be allowed to stand in public automobile rights-of-way - on the steet. Motorists are already given more space than pedestrians as it is, so it does not seem reasonable that pedestrians should automatically be expected to be the only ones to give up their space in event of a protest.

Your're right realist- who cares- it's Tom Perriello. And he thought playing in this game was easy. Now he will have to try and get some clients as an attorney when he gets fired.

And most would take the entire 2 years to screw up a career- he only took 6 months