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Published: Wednesday, 8/15/2007

A sidewalk's width

DENYING people the right to hand out flyers or seek signatures on petitions on the sidewalks outside Fifth Third Field is an unnecessary infringement of First Amendment rights and is a policy that should be reversed.

Last week, Toledo police ordered Claudia Vercellotti, co-coordinator of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, to move across the street as she attempted to hand out flyers to people outside the ballpark.

Chief Michael Navarre says this has been police policy for several years and was implemented because of concern for the safety of folks who would walk into the street to avoid the person handing out the flyers or seeking signatures.

But that's a flimsy excuse for denying someone their constitutional right. That's the larger issue in play here, and it affects all Toledoans.

The dispute is not about the propriety of the "Monsignor Jerome Schmit Way" signs along part of St. Clair Street, which Ms. Vercellotti wants removed because of the late prelate's alleged interference in the original investigation into the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl. Neither is it about the cozy, well-documented relationship that existed in generations past between the Catholic church and Toledo police.

It's not even about the "right" of Mud Hens fans to be left alone on their way to or from the ballpark, since there was no suggestion that Ms. Vercellotti was aggressively accosting anyone, or that her mere presence on the sidewalk forced pedestrians into the street.

What it's about is maintaining the sometimes delicate balance between free speech and public safety. While the police department's concern for public safety is laudable, and the officer involved was certainly correct to follow department policy, the basic rights of citizens must always be jealously guarded.

Ms. Vercellotti was engaged in a lawful activity on a public sidewalk and, absent evidence that she was trampling anyone else's rights, it appears the only duty of the police ought to be to tell people who don't want to accept her flyers to stay out of the street.

Chief Navarre must know that freedom is a fragile commodity that is seldom lost all at once. More often, it is worn away, as water wears away stone, drip by drip. And, in this case, the difference between being free or not may be no wider than a city sidewalk.

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