Free Speech Isn’t Free, But Neither Are City Parades

(October 2011)

The Occupy Philly effort, and the other occupations across the country, have certainly captured our civic and national attention. Citizens and commentators wrestle with the larger questions of what this movement wants and means, but very narrowly, Occupy Philly demonstrates clearly that free speech is not free -- at least when it comes to the citizens who are footing the bill for the local impact of this national movement. The City is absolutely right to spend money to protect the right of citizens to peacefully assemble and speak freely -- but given its correctness in this decision, City leaders might rethink the decision to stop covering the costs of Philadelphia's ethnic parades and community gatherings. 

According to published reports, the City's Budget Director estimates the cost to provide policing and other services related to the Occupy Philadelphia encampment was more than $200,000 for the first week and more than $100,000 for each additional week. That is certainly not "free" speech. Occupy Philadelphia participants might question whether they want or need the City's services, but it is clear that nothing is without a cost when it comes to the events that make cities magnets for millions. Police presence, crowd management, and trash collection require funding, and that funding creates costs for citizens or causes government to reduce expenditure on other services enjoyed by residents. 

Putting the impact of Occupy Philadelphia in perspective, the cultural parades and festivals -- from the biggies like the Mummers Parade to community happenings in neighborhoods across Philadelphia -- cost the City roughly $500,000 annually. After the impact of the global economic meltdown hit Philadelphia in 2008, the City announced that it would stop funding police overtime or cleanup costs for these events. While the City must be miserly in the face of its continuing financial crisis, turning to the organizers of these events to foot the bills is self defeating. 

Some parades have found private sources to fund the costs, but may not be able to find funding in the future. Other gatherings, which helped promote vitality in neighborhoods and communities across the city, have been scaled back or cancelled, leaving Philadelphia diminished by their absence. Organizers have canceled events that previously attracted visitors to town and created much public good. 

Certainly, the City's ability to pick up the costs associated with large gatherings is not limitless and the City should do all it can to work with organizers to minimize costs. But, our ability to host events from block parties to sports championship parades (please, sports gods, bless us with that cost!) are intrinsically part of what makes cities work and what makes cities great. 

Perhaps one long-term solution to the challenge of paying for these gatherings would be to dedicate some of the revenue from the City's Hotel Tax, which is used for tourism-promotion and marketing activities. These events can be magnets for out-of-towners and form the foundation for much of what we promote as our City of Neighborhoods – why not utilize some of the millions from the Hotel Tax to ensure that we have something to promote to tourists that is authentically Philadelphia? 

Maybe some of the best outcomes of provocative efforts like Occupy Philadelphia are the way we reassess our perspectives based on the questions they raise -- whether those questions surround national economic inequities or municipal funding priorities. Just as Philadelphia has embraced the idea that we should respect the right of individuals to assemble and speak, we should respect the wonderful events that make Philadelphia great. 

If we cannot find a way to make sure that these events can continue, we may force the organizers of our parades and festivals to host their events as protests. Then, the City might respond by providing police, traffic, and sanitation services at no cost to protect their right to exercise free speech.