Growers market dispute over free speech simmers
Debate over free speech at a local growers market escalated Tuesday night, when one farmer was asked immediately to leave a meeting of the market’s board of directors.
Farmer Mike Pasner was ordered to leave the Nevada County Certified Growers Market board meeting and the organization’s president Chris Bierwagen declined to address the free-speech issue that brought a handful of concerned residents to the meeting.
Pasner wrote a letter to The Union on July 10 condemning the recent decision by the growers market board to take out free-speech booths at the Saturday markets, and he went on a local radio station to encourage members of the community to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“If you’re here to talk about the free speech issue, you may as well leave now because we will not be discussing it at tonight’s meeting,” Bierwagen said to the half-dozen community members who showed up at the stuffy meeting room at the Nevada County Irrigation District office.
Bierwagen said he told Pasner, who is a past president of the grower’s market, to leave Tuesday’s meeting because he is no longer a member.
“A mountain has been made out of a mole hill, and it is because of one person,” Bierwagen told The Union Wednesday morning.
Nevada County Certified Growers Market is a 78-member organization of local growers and holds a farmers market every Saturday for most of the year at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.
Pasner said that free speech booths have always been welcome at the growers market without causing disturbances.
“With this rule, the board has effectively ousted me from this market, and there is no reason for me to rejoin,” said Pasner, owner of Indian Springs Organic Farm.
Bierwagen, who is the farm manager of Donner Trail Fruit, said the primary reason for the board’s decision to ban free speech booths was to avoid the stress of managing and allotting space for them at the all-volunteer market.
“We don’t want the responsibility of having to decide who is allowed and who isn’t,” Bierwagen said.
“We don’t want to be forced to allow everyone to have a booth, especially if their opinion is counter to the opinions of our customers.”
Since the market is private and its members pay an annual fee, free speech protections granted by the First Amendment do not always apply, said Jim Ewert, a staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
But because of a 1980 California Supreme Court decision, Ewert said, Pasner and other critics of the board’s decision could have some legal standing to bring free speech booths back to the market.
In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, the court ruled that the state of California could require public access to a shopping center for political petitioning under reasonable rules and regulations without violating the center owner’s constitutional rights.
“Given the history of free speech booths and the environment of the growers market, the Pruneyard decision could be applied in this case,” Ewert said. “But, it’s not entirely clear. There is not an absolute right to free speech here.”
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