Citing `Illegal Activities,' County Cuts Microphone to Free Speech Program

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

Lane County officials plan to pull the electrical plug on a free-wheeling free speech program that takes place during Saturday Market season at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza, saying excessive noise and unlawful behavior on the terrace have become untenable.

"We're not trying to suppress or censor free speech," Commissioner Bobby Green said. "We're concerned with the level of what we consider to be illegal activities" that take place on the plaza, such as drug dealing, defecation, urination and vandalism.

"It's disgraceful what they're doing to a public resource," Commissioner Bill Dwyer added. "Wayne Morse would be turning over in his grave if he could see what I've seen on several occasions."

The commissioners, following the recommendation of a county policy committee, say they still want to assure free speech access at the plaza - but that doesn't mean they have to provide an electrical outlet for power.

Amplified noise has been a problem, with the county receiving "numerous complaints" from local businesses, Green said. Beyond that, the absence of electrical power should help reduce the trashing of the plaza, county officials hope.

Organizers of the Wayne Morse Youth Program - who pay the county for the electricity they use - agree there's a long-running problem associated with homeless youth who congregate on the plaza during Saturday Market season. But they say cutting off electrical power doesn't solve anything.

"It's a sorry situation," said Victor Stathakis, who founded the program and has been organizing Saturday free speech events since 1993. "But we don't see how the remedy fits the problem. We're not that problem. We don't attract that problem."

As for noise, he said the program has never received any complaints. When speakers are too loud or use profane language, organizers turn down the mike or tell speakers to tone it down, he said.

County officials seem to be lumping the free speech program with other youth who are causing problems on the plaza, said Iana Matthews-Harris, 18, and Ishi Woods, 22, the program's current co-managers.

"It makes me think they've never been down here," Matthews-Harris said. "We don't condone the stuff that's going on. The county is shutting us off as if that's going to solve the problem."

"We're trying to do a positive thing," Woods added. "We're trying to give youth a voice."

This past Saturday, as Woods and Matthews-Harris talked in the middle of the plaza, a group of young people gathered under a covered area next to the county Public Services Building and courthouse. They could be seen exchanging what appeared to be cash for drugs not 15 feet from the statue of Wayne Morse, and the faint smell of marijuana smoke was in the air. …