Fun fact: if you ever stop by the Nashville office of United States Sen. Bill Frist, a functioning government office paid for by you and me, you’re not on public property...at least, not totally.
Senators and congressmen are given allowances to spend on state field offices. Usually they rent space in office buildings alongside lawyers, doctors and mortgage brokers. And, just like any other renter, they answer to landlords and building managers as do, by extension, the hundreds of constituents who come to the field offices to advocate for one cause or another.
For the most part, this works out nicely. Federal officeholders get a daily presence in their home districts and building owners get an established tenant for several years. If it weren’t for those pesky constituents, everything would be perfect.
Enter Karl Meyer, an elderly Frist constituent who has been on a hunger strike ever since the start of the war in Iraq and pledges to continue it until hostilities cease. Meyer also promises to hold daily one-man “peace vigils” at the senator’s Nashville office at 28 White Bridge Road. Meyer says he targets Frist in particular because “he is the most powerful person in Tennessee supporting the Bush Administration push toward war.” His efforts have made him a minor hero among local progressives.
Frist staffers, on the other hand, maintain an outwardly genteel attitude toward their unwelcome visitor. But the truth is they consider him a nuisance. They would prefer that he come in, say his piece, and then leave, just like any normal constituent would. They would rather he not stay and “vigil.” No one who works for Frist will speak ill of Meyer, and one noted that they have often “worked with” him in the past. But what they really mean is that they just listened politely, nodded, and went on with their day.
The building’s manager, though, doesn’t have that kind of flexibility; he’s less than enthusiastic about a peace protestor milling around the hallways passing out anti-war leaflets to his tenants and their customers. (The manager is also a tad skittish about publicity, refusing to give his name to at least one reporter.)
That’s why the manager called Metro police on Monday to have Meyer arrested for criminal trespassing for the second time in four days. In doing so, the manager has unwittingly raised some interesting First Amendment issues. (Constitutional primer: the First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peacably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”)
Does Meyer not have the constitutional right to peacefully protest in a building in which his senator rents an office? And isn’t the building manager just running interference for Senator Frist and effectively shielding the senator from a member of the public who has a grievance?
On the other hand, doesn’t the building manager have every right in the world to eject someone from private property? And because Frist is allowed to be in a private office building, shouldn’t he be treated like any other tenant?
The answer is not entirely clear.
From a legal standpoint, Frist’s office is not “public” property, at least not in the pure First Amendment sense of that word. At best his office is a hybrid. It’s private, of course, and yet Frist is a public official.
Meyer’s sympathizers want to say that Frist is falsely claiming his Nashville office is treated differently than other public spaces. They say the treatment accorded Meyer is different than, say, in the wholly public Richard Russell Building in Washington, where Frist’s main office is located.
But the truth is that Meyer could no more stage a personal “vigil” in Frist’s D.C. office than he could in the Nashville office. In fact, considering the tension up there nowadays, Meyer would probably be arrested even more quickly and treated much more harshly than he has been here.
Nick Smith, Frist’s communications director, is quick to point out that protests are fine on the Capitol grounds (as long as the protesters have permits) but are verboten in Capitol offices. Bottom line: whether in D.C. or elsewhere, you are certainly free to speak your mind to your senator or representative in their offices, but you may not interfere with their daily business or that of their staff.
Meyer and his friends do have a point, however, when they say that, legality aside, there’s just something plain wrong about a private citizen having input (even very nominal input) as to who can and who cannot make his voice heard in an elected official’s office. The problem is that elected officials can take advantage of the relationship, getting a private citizen to do the dirty work for them of keeping noisy protesters at bay. Meanwhile, the public official is allowed to claim that he had nothing to do with removing the protester. This is clearly not something a public official could do as easily in federal buildings, where the person or entity making the call to boot out interlopers could clearly be traced back to the official. University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds puts it best when he says that the manager’s actions are probably quite legal, but that it may “call the appropriateness of the arrangement into question.”
This became especially evident late last week when a loose coalition of 60 or so people staged a protest against the war outside Frist’s building. The protesters all wanted to go into Frist’s office to share their opinions with the senator’s staffers about the war. But there was only room for about 25 in Frist’s conference room, so the rest had to stay outside while the building manager and a phalanx of police officers stood in the front hallway to make sure no one else came in.
Therefore it looked, for all intents and purposes, as though it was the building manager blocking the protestors’ access to their own senator. Meyer, a self-described professional activist named Andrew Smith, and Jason Bell, a Vanderbilt philosophy graduate student, were arrested for trying to walk in. Bell, who is by far the most thoughtful and reasonable of the three, said that he was uncomfortable with the idea of a “private business gatekeeper” denying access to citizens who want to make their views known to their elected officials.
Whatever one thinks of Bell’s views on the war, he has a halfway decent point. Frist staffers don’t necessarily help matters when they say that the protestors were interfering with other businesses in the office building and that’s why the building manager got involved. First of all, it’s not entirely clear that’s the case, since the group spent most of its time out on the sidewalk by the side of the road well away from the building. Second, it reeks too much of buck-passing. The Frist office would be much better off relating the simple facts: 60 people wanted to come into their office to share their opinions about the war, there was room for only 25 people, they picked the 25, they heard them out, and that was that.
These reasonable efforts to accommodate the protestors put them in the clear, and they should have just said so outright. It would have saved everyoneincluding themselvesa lot of aggravation.
If you really want somebody to know something, you could just tell them.
I doubt she'd choke on yours.
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Bill, I agree. But you're messing with Betsy's MO.