Pete Guither's attempt to criticize the war on drugs has become a war of its own.
When an exhibition sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened at the Museum of Science and Industry in August, Guither showed up with a sack full of pamphlets denouncing the government's anti-narcotics strategy.
But soon after he began handing the pamphlets out, museum officials confined him to what he said was an almost deserted stretch of sidewalk. Then a lawyer for the Chicago Park District told him the pamphlets were "commercial in nature" and that he needed a permit to distribute them at all.
The Park District says it's just a matter of keeping its facilities running smoothly. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which has gotten involved in the dispute, calls it "a classic case of free speech."
"What you have in this instance is a government-sponsored promotion of their viewpoint on a policy issue, and a citizen who wants to express the opposite viewpoint," said ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka. "... We don't think this is the kind of speech that requires a permit."
The exhibition, aimed at young people, is meant to expose the grim toll of the drug business. It includes a reproduction of a seedy crack house, a gallery of people who died from drug-related causes, and exhibits that link the narcotics trade with terrorism.
"The concept is, by educating people and getting them to realize how dangerous drugs are, the damage it can do, the people it can destroy, hopefully people are smart enough to realize they shouldn't do this," said DEA spokesman Steve Robertson.
Guither, 52, whose day job is assistant dean at Illinois State University, said he has long been a civil-liberties activist. He turned his attention to the drug war with a blog that advocates legalizing marijuana and regulating other narcotics, an alternative to what he calls a futile and destructive policy of prohibition.
When he learned earlier this year that a traveling exhibition sponsored by the DEA would visit the Museum of Science and Industry, Guither said he felt compelled to act.
"I used to practically live in that museum," he said. "I didn't like seeing it perverted into an infomercial for the DEA."
On opening day, Guither went to the museum with leaflets criticizing the exhibition and the DEA. He said he approached security guards before handing out the material, hoping to prevent any problems. After a huddle, officials told him he could distribute them outside.
For about two hours Guither gave pamphlets to people at the entryways facing 57th Street. But then, he said, a security supervisor told him he was allowed only on a sidewalk between the entryways, where Guither said few people ventured.
"We had about 100 an hour before then, maybe one an hour after then," he said.
Museum spokeswoman Lisa Miner, who met with Guither that day, disagreed with his characterization of the space, saying many people walk though there on a typical day.
A few days later Guither contacted officials of the museum and the Chicago Park District, asking that he be allowed to pass out his fliers freely. Park District attorney Timothy King eventually sent this reply:
"Per our conversation, I consider your handout to be commercial in nature and therefore, pursuant to our Code, would require a permit to distribute on our property."
In an interview last week, King said his judgment "was not a matter of content. I didn't even really give [the handout] a good review. Beyond the nature of the flier, I didn't delve into the content.
"This is just a matter of how do we keep our parks open to all, and how do we set people up in a manner so as not to interfere with anyone's use."
Geoffrey Stone, a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, said the flier clearly was not commercial material. But even if it were, he said, the government cannot regulate commercial pamphleteering in public areas if it doesn't cause problems, such as litter or blocked building entrances.
Yohnka, of the ACLU, said the group hoped to come to an agreement with the Park District that would establish an area where activists could have better access to people arriving at the museum.
He said a similar arrangement has been worked out at McCormick Place, which used to keep activists away from conventioneers.
King said the problem could be solved if Guither would apply for a permit, but Guither said he had no intention of doing that.
"We are not applying to hand out commercial [material]," he said. "It would be like handing out a permit for me to be out on the sidewalk talking."
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