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Public comment on private space: the NYCLU billboard. Photo by Teri Currie.

Say What You Want

Just off Interstate 90, not long before you reach the westbound Slingerlands exit, sits a sign that reads, “Welcome to the mall. You have the right to remain silent. Value free speech.”

The sign is a peculiarity among billboards. It depicts a young person covered from cheek to cheek with a wide piece of yellow tape, blocking out the mouth completely. The owner of the ad isn’t trying to sell duct tape, or even invite you into the mall.

Instead, it makes reference to the Crossgates Mall’s policy on free speech, and was posted by the New York Civil Liberties Union—a statewide nonprofit organization, committed to upholding the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the New York state Constitution.

As reported by Metroland [Newsfront, March 6], 61-year-old Stephen Downs was arrested by a Crossgates Mall security guard on March 3, after refusing to remove a T-shirt that read “Give Peace a Chance.”

Pyramid Mall Management, owner of Crossgates Mall, hasn’t backed off its policy. In response to a letter from the NYCLU, the company detailed, in part, its code of conduct: “We reserve the right to limit non-commercial expressive activity on the property . . . including free-speech activities.”

Donna Leiberman, executive director of the NYCLU, argues that the mall is an area where free speech should be protected.

“Given the prominent role of malls in our society, policies of this kind could prove extremely harmful for all Americans,” said Lieberman in a public statement.

Being privately owned, the mall legally can enforce its own code of conduct. But the definition of the mall as a private space is somewhat ambiguous, Leiberman said.

“There is a difference between the public areas of a mall and the private confines of a store. [The mall] invites people to sit on the seats in its squares and eat in its restaurants,” Lieberman reported.

The NYCLU is calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation that would guarantee mallgoers the right to self-expression. The legislation would allow for restrictions, according to Lieberman, and it has received support from Assembly members Steven Englebright and John McEneny.

The NYCLU is engaged in a debate for what it sees as the right to exercise a constitutional right in a place central to American life.

Public awareness is an important part of the process, Lieberman said. “[The sign is] part of an effort to educate people about the issues.”

—John Gallagher

Been There

When Manna Jo Greene sees images of Baghdad on TV, like many people, she thinks of the people whose lives are destroyed with each bomb that falls from the sky. But for Greene, who recently spent two weeks in Iraq, these images are the familiar faces, sounds and smells of a city that she described as being highly functional and alive just one month ago.

“It is really eerie when I see this, because I was just there,” said Greene. “Now when I look at images I see a different city than the city I was just in. I recognize the streets and I remember standing there and I say to myself, ‘Oh my God, I was on that street corner just two weeks ago.’”

Greene, who went to Iraq as a representative as the Hudson Valley Peace Brigade, was part of the Iraqi Peace Team with the Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness. Since 1996, the group has sent more than 60 delegations to Iraq and has violated sanctions by transporting medical supplies to the Iraqi people. While many have gone to Iraq to serve as human shields in hopes of preventing the war, others like Greene went to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and to bring a message of peace from the Western world.

This Sunday at the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greene will talk about her experience in Iraq. The event is sponsored by the Education Committee of the Women Against War and the Focus Church, and will begin at 7 PM.

“I wanted to go and see for myself and to make a connection with the people,” said Greene. “One thing I found amazing was that even though we were threatening to go to war, at that time, people were universally warm, friendly and hospitable. At that point, life was going along as usual: People were getting married, dancing and singing in the streets, schoolchildren were going to school, life was pretty ordinary.”

—Nancy Guerin

Better Late Than Never

With the U.S. military invasion of Iraq a little more than two weeks old, the Albany Common Council will consider, on April 7, a nonbinding resolution expressing the city’s desire to bring the U.S. military campaign in the Middle East to a close.

Alderwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2) is sponsoring the resolution, an amended version of one she and a number of citizens were working on prior to the beginning of U.S bombing in Iraq.

“We’ve revised the resolution to point out the fact that we are against the war continuing,” McLaughlin said. “We are also acknowledging the sacrifice that the troops and their families are making. By no means are we saying that we don’t support the troops; we do that wholeheartedly.”

Albany would join a list of more than 160 counties, towns and cities nationwide that have passed similar resolutions. Those include Ithaca, New Paltz, Syracuse and New York City in our state.

“This is the issue of our day, and I think it is the duty of citizens to debate the issues of the day and take a stand on them,” said Anita Thayer, a local civil-rights attorney who has pushed for the city to adopt an antiwar resolution. “Hopefully, public expression of this kind of sentiment will bring an end to the war and bring the troops home.”

But Common Council President Helen Desfosses wondered how the council would handle the resolution, since the war has already begun.

“What kind of effect will this have on the passage of such a resolution?” wondered Desfosses. “People are going to be very concerned about sounding supportive and respectful for the contribution of American troops, and people on the council mirror the spectrum of public opinion.”

McLaughlin pointed out that the resolution contains language specifically addressing the contributions of U.S. military servicemen, while considering the war’s effects on the people of Iraq.

“This war is having a devastating effect on the Iraqi people,” McLaughlin emphasized. “Even though we are not targeting them, when you have bombs dropping all over the place, you can’t help but be affected by it.”

McLaughlin’s resolution will be presented to the Common Council at its next meeting, at 7 PM on Monday (April 7) in the council chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 24 Eagle St. in Albany. A public comment period will be the first item on the agenda.

—Travis Durfee

Shannon DeCelle

Keep It Clean

The city of Albany hosted one of five national public hearings regarding proposed changes to the Clean Air Act at the Marriott on Monday. Groups including Environmental Advocates of New York and the American Lung Association, along with New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, spoke out against the proposed changes. An organized rally took place outside. The Environmental Protection Agency sought public comment and information on the proposed changes that many say will create more opportunities for polluters to evade regulation. The EPA has extended the public comment period until May 2. Learn how to comment: Check out

Joe Putrock

To Our Health

With the theme from Rocky bouncing off the walls of the Empire State Plaza, upwards of 30,000 New York state health workers roared as speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) took center stage.

“You made the wrong choice,” Silver yelled into the microphone, sending a message to Gov. George E. Pataki about his proposed $2 billion cuts in health-care programs.

The protest was organized by the Service Employees International Union and the Greater New York Hospital Association, an umbrella group for more than 220 hospitals. The message: Health-care workers do not support the proposed cuts.

Tuesday’s demonstration brought traffic in downtown Albany to a standstill in what was the largest protest to converge on the Capitol in more than 20 years.

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