* AWOL CANDIDATE: Let me leave a hat tip to Stu Soffer, who's been dogging 3rd District Democratic candidate Ken Aden's military record exaggeration since before it hit the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He sends along a link to military.com, which provides a thorough accounting of how an apparent records error (now corrected thanks to recent media coverage) gave Aden enough rope to hang himself on an exaggeration of his Army record, which legitimately included combat duty in the Middle East with the 82nd Airborne. But, no, he didn't complete Special Forces training, despite multiple tries. The article quotes a retired Special Forces sergeant who's become something of a specialist at running down inaccurate military claims. Aden has absented himself from the scene of late. He was never a threat to Rep. Steve Womack in the heavily Republican district anyway, but his unwillingness to confront the uncomfortable facts has disappointed diehards who were happy to vote for him and his progressive politics as a protest of Womack.
* AND SPEAKING OF FREEDOM: Robert Nunn, who's been a stalwart canvasser for the ethics reform initiative, reports trouble on the Arkansas River. He says some canvassers are being told they can't solicit signatures in the city's Riverfront Park, where the annual July 4 fireworks and symphony show sponsored by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will be held tonight. Surely there's some mistake. Discouraging petition of government in a public park during an Independence Day event sponsored by a newspaper? Say it ain't so.
UPDATE: David Couch, a lawyer for the effort, said the group had tried to rent a booth in the Democrat-Gazette event tonight, but had been refused. So he said the group put $10 in the paid parking box at Clinton Avenue and Commerce to set up a table in a slot in the parking lot across from the River Market. Democrat-Gazette employees arrived later and said they'd have to move because the entire lot had been rented by the newspaper for the night. Couch said he then told canvassers to set up on the sidewalk, a public right of way. But he said police have indicated that is part of a permitted area — the same excuse offered by Riverfest organizers — and they'd be arrested if they attempted to gather petition signatures. Couch has gone downtown to investigate. I've left a message in the D-G newsroom and elsewhere, including on the cell phone of Tabitha Cunningham, the promotions employee who reportedly asked petiitioners to leave the parking lot, but it's a holiday and no formal response has come so far.
When Riverfest tried to roust petitioners from the public streets, Mayor Stodola stepped in and made it clear that petitioners could be on public right of way at entrances. Couch said canvassers aren't seeking to enter concert grounds or the amphitheater where the symphony will play, only use the public sidewalk along Clinton Avenue. It wouldn't seem a private enterprise could take control of speech on a public thoroughfare either. I've asked city officials for comment, too. Robert Nunn said a medical marijuana canvasser had run into similar difficulty.
UPDATE II: I heard back from Tabitha Cunningham, working on the event for the D-G. She said the newspaper, in following long tradition, was attempting to keep political elements from the "event grounds," which the newspaper rented for the occasion. This would include the amphitheater and River Market pavilions and other areas beyond entrance gates. But she said the newspaper was making no effort to prevent access on sidewalks or streets in front of the River Market. She said there might have been some confusion about a road right of way that passes between the River Market Pavilion and the River Market building, but she considered that a portion of the grounds the newpaper had rented and police, as a result, were barring canvassers from that area. The park remains open to the public and there is no charge to enter the grounds or to attend the concert and fireworks show. Cunningham said the newspaper had never encountered petitioners in past years. The police also said they were only clearing petitioners from event space, not streets or sidewalks, as long as they weren't impeding traffic.
Without laying any blame on anyone, I think the Riverfest and Pops on the River experiences suggest the city (The convention bureau now oversees leasing of the space) needs to develop clear ground rules on use of its space by renters, including privileges and prohibitions on adjacent space, and police need to be up-to-date from the outset. A map delineating open areas would be handy to provide would-be free speakers. Strike up the band.
UPDATE III: At 5:15 p.m., this update from Tabitha Cunningham, after a discussion with Little Rock police. Because the Pops on the River is a free, nonticketed event, the city has concluded that the sponsor CANNOT bar petitioners from any portion of their grounds. As a result, the whole grounds are now open to canvassers. Cunningham said the newspaper doublechecked because it wanted to be sure everything was done correctly. Confusion arose because the situation had never been faced before.
LET FREEDOM RING!
PS — On the ground, canvassers experienced a little less peace and love until Police Chief Stuart Thomas arrived and apparently straightened out some misunderstandings about the First Amendment. One canvasser reported Thursday:
Hi Max, Around 1 p.m., Yesterday while canvassing Ethic Petitions @ Rivermarket I was aggressively kicked out by the Events Coordinator for the Democrat Gazette. During the course the woman and the security guy told me they took it out on me because they'd' had it with petitioners — they'd 'had to be kicking them out all day.' I left before police arrived to 'arrest me'. Mac Miller walked into it as Police and Police Chief arrived and apparently handled it well - but not before a lot of Ethic Petitioners lost their option and right to catch up on these signatures with a great crowd. The petitioners also apparently had the same right to be there in Rivermarket Pavillion as Allysa,the Democrat bullywoman and her helper- the Rivermarket Security guy. It happened in a Public Venue on the Forth of July. It shouldn't have happened at all.
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