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Rangers taught a history lesson


By Ronnie Polaneczky

Steven M. Falk / Daily News

Jake Browne yesterday holds the same sign in the same area south of Independence Hall where a ranger last Saturday said he could not protest, calling it a First-Amendnment-Free Zone.

THE DAY AFTER the opening of the National Constitution Center, Jake Browne learned of two rights apparently guaranteed to the rangers who patrol Independence National Historical Park:

The right to be ignorant of U.S. laws you're protecting.

And the right to be a bully.

All Browne wanted on July 5th was to exercise his First Amendment right to free speech.

That afternoon, the 20-year-old history major sat on a bench in the open-access park behind Independence Hall - where he eats lunch every day on break from his summer job - and propped a hand-lettered sign next to him. It read:

"Free Independence Hall."

"Every day, I look at the metal bike racks around Independence Hall and think, 'That's so ugly,' " he said. "Even with red-white-and-blue bunting it looks like prison."

So Saturday, as he ate his ham sandwich, pretzels and grapes, he displayed his sign.

He didn't march, didn't use a bullhorn. He munched his lunch, while the sign quietly told passersby how he felt.

Within 10 minutes, a park ranger approached. According to Browne, their conversation went like this:

Ranger: "You can't protest here."

Browne: "Why?"

Ranger: "This is federal property."

Browne: "What about my First Amendment right to free speech?"

Ranger: "This is a First-Amendment-free zone."

God, how I wish I was making this up.

The ranger, said Browne, said that protesters could exercise free speech only in a designated First Amendment Zone - in this case, outside the Visitor's Center, two blocks away.

Browne was outraged, but felt too intimidated - this was a tall, uniformed ranger, complete with shiny chin strap! - to call the guy's bluff. He said he'd turn his sign around while he ate his lunch. "He said, 'Fine. But I'm keeping my eye on you. If you turn it back, you're under arrest.' "

God, how I wish I was making that up, too.

A few minutes later, said Browne, about a dozen rangers lined the metal fence near his bench and gave him the hairy eyeball while he finished his pretzels and downed his Coke.

"It was very antagonizing," Browne said.

The ACLU's Pennsylvania executive director thought so, too, when I called to ask if he'd ever heard of a "First-Amendment-free zone."

"There's no such thing!" thundered David DiSabatino. "The whole country is a free-speech zone!"

As of today, that zone will once again include the very park, in the cradle of liberty, where Browne sat last Saturday.

"We've worked it out," said ACLU legal director Stefan Presser, who took up Browne's cause yesterday with park assistant superintendent Dennis Reidenbach. According to Presser, the park official explained that some of the rangers were new to the site and "didn't understand its history."

Since Reidenbach and other park officials were not available for comment yesterday, I will take Presser at his word when he says that, by "history," both men were referring to the 1988 injunction guaranteeing protesters the right to assemble on the park. It was granted by federal judge in response to police shooing protesters off the site when Ronald Reagan was speechifying there.

But the history the rangers need to familiarize themselves with is the one being celebrated so richly in the park's beautiful new Constitution Center.

"It's ironic," said Browne. "There are ads everywhere saying, 'Because of the Constitution, I've got all these freedoms.' But two blocks away, the rangers are trying to take them away."

I don't know about you, but it makes me want to pull hard on their chin straps and snap some sense into them.

article source: http://www.philly.com/mld/dailynews/news/local/6270334.htm

For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/polaneczky.

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