To most visitors, Baltimore's Inner Harbor looks like an appealing mix of shops and waterfront attractions. But to anyone trying to exercise their rights of free speech, it can be a hostile maze governed by a patchwork of rules. If you demonstrate or distribute leaflets at the "wrong" spot, you could be ordered to leave and threatened with jail.

That is what happened recently to Bruce Friedrich. He and fellow members of an animal rights group handed out leaflets one recent Sunday on a pedestrian bridge between the power plant and the National Aquarium — what looks to all the world like a public sidewalk on public property — only to be threatened with arrest by a city police officer and ordered to leave the harbor. Mr. Friedrich and his colleagues contend that rules governing that particular patch of the Inner Harbor allow people to hand out noncommercial material. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the group that maintains the harbor promenade, and the National Aquarium disagreed, saying leafleting on this patch of city-owned land leased to the aquarium was prohibited.

This Inner Harbor incident brought to mind another, from September 2009, when police officers wrongly ordered peace protesters to leave McKeldin Square, the plaza on the Southeast corner of Pratt and Light streets that is the Inner Harbor's designated protest zone. City officials later admitted their error and apologized to the demonstrators.

Both of these incidents point to a need for guidelines that clearly spell out what is and is not acceptable behavior in the Inner Harbor, and they need to be based on the presumption that free speech is a natural and desirable part of civic life. The powers that be seem to want to pretend that the Inner Harbor is like Disney World — a manufactured environment calibrated to avoid any possibility of discomfort or dissent. But it isn't. It is the heart of a major American city, an embodiment of Baltimore's best side and the face we show to the world. Peaceful political speech is not something we should hide but something we should embrace as a treasured element of our civic identity.

Unfortunately, it has taken a lawsuit to force the city to come up with a reasonable set of rules. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in federal court in 2003 over what it contends are restrictive free speech rules in the Inner Harbor, a space the ACLU regards as a public park. Currently, regulations regarding demonstrating and leafleting — as well as begging, vending and soliciting — can vary from location to location in the Inner Harbor. Negotiations between the ACLU and the city and the many stakeholders in the harbor have moved at a snail's pace, but representatives of both sides told The Sun's Peter Hermann last week that settlement is near. We hope so; eight years is too long to resolve this matter.

The current situation is untenable. Demonstrators can unwittingly wander into unmarked "forbidden" zones. Police officers threaten demonstrators with arrest for activities that are perfectly legal, only to apologize later. In some instances, neither the demonstrators nor authorities seem to know what geographical and legal boundaries apply.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a civic gathering spot, our local soapbox. Candidates give speeches there. Sporting victories are celebrated there. It, like town squares around the nation, is a place where people can speak out on issues of concern. Some restrictions on the time, place and manner of demonstrations would be appropriate, but these rules have to be fair, easy to understand and able to be enforced without ambiguity. Above all, they must begin from the presumption that speech should be protected, not discouraged.

That is not the case now. It needs to change. Speaking out at the harbor should be a part of civic life, not a reason to be handcuffed.