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Columbia law professor criticizes free speech restrictions

Mark Barenberg, a Columbia University law professor, challenged the legality of policies at Bethlehem's SteelStacks campus.

Columbia University law professor Mark Barenberg challenged the legality of what he called a ban on anti-casino demonstrations and labor organizing at the SteelStacks campus during a recent talk in Linderman Library.

Barenberg, a labor and constitutional law specialist who co-directs Columbia’s program on law and policy, gave a history of free-speech and labor-based organizing to provide context to the current circumstances at SteelStacks.

In June 2011, he said, the Sands casino sold 2.5 acres of land near the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces to the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, so that the land could be incorporated into the SteelStacks arts and cultural campus.

Ownership was transferred on two conditions, Barenberg said. First, labor unions would be prohibited from organizing on the property. Second, that no activities that a “reasonable casino operator” would deem offensive could take place.

Barenberg said these restrictions on free speech in a public space are unconstitutional.

“Even if the deed succeeded in creating a limited public forum, the deed seems to violate its own categorization of what speech is included and what speech is excluded,” said Barenberg. “The deed allows activity that promotes the historic culture of the Lehigh Valley, but not labor speech, which most assuredly promotes a central part of the cultural history of this valley.”

Barenberg said that the deed creates what he called “speech discrimination” and that Bethlehem resident are within their rights to challenge the legality of the restrictions.

The event was organized by Lehigh’s South Side Initiative and attended by members of the United Steelworkers and the American Civil Liberties Union. Barenberg was introduced by Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and director of the South Side Initiative.

While the SteelStacks campus is an important public space for the community, Moglen said, the prohibitions on free speech conflict with the site’s history as a place where workers were once supported by unions.

“On public land, developed at tax payers’ expense, one of our most basic constitutional liberties appears to be abridged, in a contract signed by the city government and a private company,” Moglen said.

“The South Side Initiative thought it would be helpful for us to bring in a legal expert who could help to shed some light on these matters and to provide some historical context and some legal context for understanding these issues in the United States.”

Barenberg, who has published articles in the Harvard Law Review and the Journal of International Economic Law, said the restrictions limit cultural expression in the Lehigh Valley.

“What reason is there to believe that a festival devoted to, say, the heritage of Native Americans or Moravians or to rock-and-roll concerts would be less disruptive to the town square than one celebrating labor history, labor rights and contemporary local labor efforts," said Barenberg.

Story by Karl Brisseaux

Posted on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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