When free speech isn't free; Annapolis: City officials don't oppose First Amendment; they just don't want to get stuck with the bill.


ANNAPOLIS' city officials don't have anything against the First Amendment. It's paying for someone else's free speech that they oppose.

Annapolis officials want to bill large groups for the cost of police and cleanup when they visit the state capital to rally for a cause.

The 34,000 people who happen to make Annapolis their home shouldn't have to foot the bill for everyone who wants to sound off near the State House, the officials contend.

Their argument has merit, but it may be overwhelmed by the specious charge that Annapolis' city fathers are undermining free speech.

Groups from abortion opponents to organized labor demonstrate in Annapolis during the winter legislative session. Extra security and sanitation services for these gatherings cost $300,000 a year, or about 3 cents of the property tax rate of $1.70 per $100 of assessed value, city officials say.

Annapolis' attempt to recover its costs is understandable -- but misdirected. The more appropriate target is state government.

Most of the demonstrations are intended to influence the governor or General Assembly, not Annapolis City Hall. All Marylanders should be paying for this.

A vehicle to accomplish this, known as a payment in lieu of taxes, already exists. State government pays Annapolis to provide police and fire services, but the sum has been inadequate. In the last fiscal year, the state government paid the city $267,000. It would have had to pay more than twice that in real estate taxes -- $647,380 -- were its property not exempt from city levies.

Obviously, Annapolis' economy benefits immensely from being the seat of government. No one is advocating moving the capital after more than 300 years. Annapolis' taxpayers, however, shouldn't have to subsidize marches and demonstrations just because they occur in their back yard.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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