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Nix this rule: Even in state parks, free speech should reign

Written by Susan Mannella on .

There's a rule on the books in Pennsylvania that would have made the sheriff of Nottingham feel a lot more secure about trying to muzzle that scoundrel Robin Hood.

According to a 1971 state regulation, the expression of political or artistic views in state parks without the permission of the state is prohibited. The distribution of printed material in state parks without permission is also prohibited.

Recently, two Green Party congressional candidates and a balloon artist found that their First Amendment rights disappeared the moment they had set foot in Point State Park, the only urban park the state oversees. State rangers told balloon artist Kevin Skolnik and Green Party candidates Mel Packer and Ed Bortz that they were in violation of the state's rarely enforced regulation.

The original intention of the rule was to maintain public safety while coordinating events in state parks. Because it was hardly ever enforced, no one noticed what a bad provision it was until the Green Party candidates started a petition drive.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union was on the case. The ACLU was as surprised as anyone that such a regulation could have been conceived, given how it conflicts with constitutional guarantees.
To its credit, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has suspended enforcement of the resolution after "friendly" encouragement by the ACLU.

Still, a suspension doesn't go far enough. Rescinding the rule is the only way to guarantee that such a threat to free speech will never be applied again. If a tree falls in a state park, everyone should have the right to say something about it.

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