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A Step Toward a Free Great Lawn

A New York Times Opinion published January 11, 2008

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In the decade since it spruced up Central Park’s Great Lawn with private money, New York City has put in place fussy and undemocratic rules barring the lawn’s use for political demonstrations. These free speech restrictions were especially offensive in 2004 when the Republican National Convention came to town and major antiwar rallies were blocked, supposedly to protect the lawn. Now, to avoid a court battle, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has agreed to take another look at his selective keep-off-the-grass policy.

The decision comes years too late, and there are no guarantees that the city will reform its policy. It is a sign of progress, though, that the Bloomberg administration has raised, at least for now, the ridiculously low cap of people who can assemble on the lawn from 50,000 to 75,000. If that temporarily opens the park to more public political expression, it’s a good first step.

The city’s agreement with Partnership for Civil Justice, which represents two groups that were denied protest permits, calls for the appointment of a panel of experts who do not work for the city. The experts are supposed to assess the durability of the grass and the stress of crowds, weather and other factors.

In the end, the two sides need to come up with a plan to allow robust free speech that also does its best to protect the $18 million makeover of the Great Lawn. The 13-acre expanse is an important urban oasis, and maintaining it is important. It is also, however, the most suitable site for large rallies and concerts in Manhattan.

The city, which has raised money for park renovations from wealthy people living nearby, has been treating the Great Lawn more as a private yard than a public space. The New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera have been welcomed, but music that appeals to New Yorkers with other tastes mostly has not.

The city has been particularly resistant to political demonstrations. During the 2004 convention, it relegated some 250,000 demonstrators to the streets for what turned out to be an unsatisfying march. Without a central rallying point and stage, which would have been possible on the Great Lawn, there could be no speeches, just signs carried in a procession. It was a sad spectacle that should not be repeated.

Mr. Bloomberg, who has been raising his national profile on issues as varied as gun control and education and prompting speculation about an independent presidential run should take a strong stand on another issue. The issue is free speech. He should support it.