We understand why Mesa political activist J.T. Ready was confused Saturday when he was told he couldn’t speak freely at the Gilbert Constitution Fair, in a location designated as the “Town Square.”
Without any context, Ready’s ejection to the sidewalk outside Mesquite High School might appear to contradict the whole point of holding an event to celebrate constitutional principles such as those found in the First Amendment.
But in reality, this moment illustrates a key point about the Bill of Rights too many people forget. The various rights explained in the First Amendment are restrictions on the actions of government, not on private groups or individuals. Government is not allowed to interfere with our ability to express what’s on our minds or to worship as we choose. The First Amendment does not require private groups to embrace or even to tolerate other points of view.
American government is the focus of the Gilbert Constitution Fair. But an independent private group organizes and funds the event. That group rents the outdoor grounds of Mesquite High School, areas normally not open to public speeches anyway. As long as no government body is involved in managing the fair, organizers have the sole freedom to decide who can take part and how they will do so.
In response to past criticism, these organizers wanted to be more open this year to political groups of differing viewpoints. But the First Amendment is only one part of Constitution, and organizers didn’t want candidates and campaigns to take over the entire event. So the “Town Square” was the designated spot for such activities. Participants were required to register and to rent a booth so organizers could make enough space available and so they could raise money to help pay the fair’s expenses.
Ready neither registered nor paid. He just showed up with some signs and began talking. A fair volunteer asked him to leave, but had to involve Gilbert police providing security to make sure he did.
And Ready moved to the real public forum available to everyone who didn’t want to follow the private group’s rules — the street-facing sidewalk.
With all of that in mind, the folks from the Gilbert Constitution Fair might consider a small change next year to accommodate those with a political message who aren’t interested in renting a booth but want to a chance to speak with anyone who will listen. Providing such people a place to stand — without any tables, chairs or shade awning — would celebrate free speech in a manner most people expect when they enter the “Town Square.”