I am slightly obsessed with the nature of public space so I find the whole Fountain Square abortion exhibit fascinating. Not because of the content, but because of the changing expectations of public space. The comment in the enquirer article by Fountain Square Managing Director Bill Donabedian sums this up pretty well. He says, “I think people would agree the square prior to renovation was about political space,” he said. “(Today) they see it as entertainment venue.”
This, for me, is the crux of the issue. What is the purpose of public space in the context of today’s cities? Are places like the renovated Fountain Square, and the renovation is important here, meant to be “traditional public forums.”
In determining the rights and privileges we have in public space the courts have established three categories of public spaces. The most protected of these is the “traditional public forum.”
In a 1939 case, Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization, the Supreme court ruled that,
Streets and parks…have immemoriably been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public issues. Such use has, from ancient times, been part of the privileges, immunities, and liberties of citizens.
With regards to free speech in a traditional public forum, the state may not restrict speech based on content unless it can show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is specifically tailored to achieve that interest.
In terms of Fountain Square specifically, the courts have ruled that,
It is well established that Fountain Square is a traditional public forum (Congregation Lubavitch v. City of Cincinnati , 997 F.2d 1160, 1161 (6th Cir. 1993). Therefore, the City’s regulation of speech on Fountain Square is subject to the highest level of scrutiny. More here.
Given that this ruling applied to the old Fountain Square should it now fall under a lesser-scrutinized classification? There is more information about the distinctions between the classifications here.
Would this be in the contemporary public interest, or a legitimate state interest? Is attracting tourist, families, the managerial class, and new residents more important than political dialog?
Could an argument be constructed that it is in the state’s interest to reclassify Fountain Square, or that there is a legitimate reason to be more selective about the events that take place there?
This is after all what has been happening, not just on Fountain Square but in public space in general. Bill’s comment illustrates that the general public thinks differently about Fountain Square and the fact is that his position is to manage this “traditional public forum”, which “provides overall leadership, direction, and focus to deliver the vision for the revitalized Fountain Square.
Maybe it can be both, maybe politics is the new entertainment. Aftter all Obama is the world’s biggest celebrity.