No politics, hon?

Café Hon owner Denise Whiting may very well have a legal right to demand that vendors at Honfest, the Hampden festival she created and runs, obey certain rules. After the flap caused last year by the news that she had copyrighted the word "Hon" and would seek to restrict its use on commercial products such as t-shirts and bumper stickers, we might have imagined that she would have lightened up. But evidently, the public outcry and threats of boycotts did not outweigh what she perceived to be her commercial interest in maintaining strict control over her intellectual property. Many may consider that unwise, but it is a public relations and business decision she has every right to make.

What is more disturbing than her insistence that vendors not sell any cat's eye glasses, though, is the idea that politics should be kept out of Honfest. The flier Ms. Whiting and other festival organizers have been handing out to those who apply for booths specifies that "vendors promoting political, religious and hot topic issues are prohibited." Ms. Whiting's son, Thomas, who helps run the festival, said that although the flier sets out restrictions for those who would set up a booth, he would also discourage candidates from working the crowd.

There's little question that Honfest organizers have no right to stop a politician from talking to voters on a public street, even if it's been temporarily taken over by a privately run festival. City Solicitor George Nilson said they probably do have a right to restrict what goes on at festival booths, though. The question is why they would want to.

Mr. Whiting said the restriction was designed both to avoid conveying the impression that the Hon empire was endorsing a candidate and to maintain the family-friendly atmosphere of the event, a statement that reflects a peculiar understanding of political and religious speech in society. Much like the recent threatened arrest of animal rights activists who were passing out fliers promoting vegetarianism at the Inner Harbor, the idea that politics or religion would somehow taint Honfest speaks to a spreading institutional corporate blandness that, in seeking to protect the public from the possibility of disagreement or offense, belies something that has always been fundamental to American society.

Our nation and system of government rely on the premise that a vigorous and public exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of a free society. Likewise, religion has historically been viewed as inseparable from the notion of family — we traditionally afford respect for that reason to faiths different from our own. Creating an environment in which we are never confronted with ideas or beliefs (political or religious) that we may not share conveys the sense that such differences are shameful or dangerous, rather than constructive.

We hope the Hon bigwigs will reconsider. The state Democratic and Republican parties, for example, routinely rent booths at the state fair without causing any sort of disruption or offense, and political candidates routinely walk in parades on the Fourth of July without any families taking offense. Abortion opponents have in the past rented a booth at Honfest, which would presumably fall under either the hot-button or religious regulations being enforced this year, but their presence has hardly overwhelmed the event or in any way inhibited its growth or success.

But even if the booth ban stays in effect, we hope all the candidates for mayor and City Council will turn out and work the crowd. It would send an important message about the central place electoral politics holds in our society, but on a more practical level, it is important for the immediate future of the city. The crucial Democratic primary is just three months away, and the candidates need to be where the people are so that voters can size them up in person and make good decisions then and in the general election in November.

If the festival organizers don't like it, that's too bad, hon. They have every right to express a desire for a politics-free festival, and the rest of us have the right to ignore them.

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