Last month the Daley administration announced it intended to hold the line on litigation in order to save the city desperately needed cash. Yet on December 4 lawyers for the city announced that they were appealing a ruling that went against them in a two-year case involving Mark Weinberg, the public-interest lawyer who’s been waging a one-man campaign against Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.
According to the appeal, the city has no alternative but to keep the case going, because the principle at stake–policing sidewalk peddlers–is important to cities across the country. The latest ruling, wrote assistant corporation counsel Marc Boxerman, “deprives municipalities of a valuable tool that had been endorsed by the Supreme Court and other circuits.” Weinberg has another theory: “I think they let it get a little personal.”
And who could blame them? By his own admission, Weinberg can be a major pain in the neck. He’s been going at Wirtz, with no sign of letting up, since the early 90s, when he began publishing the Blue Line, a satirical hockey program he peddled to fans as they streamed into the stadium to see the Blackhawks play. In 1997 he stopped putting out the program, but in December 2000 he was back outside the United Center. This time he was hawking a self-published paperback called Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz’ Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks’ Fans.
He sold the book outside the arena until February 2001, when, as an appellate court judge dryly noted, “Chicago police officers informed Weinberg that he must stop selling his book outside the United Center, explaining that he was in violation of the City’s peddling ordinance.”
According to Weinberg, three United Center security guards–all of them off-duty Chicago police officers–did a lot more than that to him on December 27, 2000. He claims they put him in a headlock, threw him to the ground, cuffed his hands behind his back, led him into the United Center, and held him in a room with his hand chained to the wall. Eventually they had him carted off to jail and charged with assault. The security guards said Weinberg had started an altercation, but later the charge was dropped; Weinberg sued the company that employed the security guards for false arrest, and the case is still pending.
After he was arrested, Weinberg says, he realized the city “wasn’t messing around.” A more practical man might have walked away, as many of Weinberg’s friends urged him to do. But within a few weeks he was pressing his case on the radio, in the newspapers, and in the courts. In 2001 he filed a suit in federal court, arguing that the city’s antipeddling ordinance–which the cops had invoked to remove him from the sidewalk–amounted to an unconstitutional infringement on his First Amendment right to sell his book.
“This is bigger than me–there’s an important First Amendment issue here,” says Weinberg, his voice rising. “The First Amendment was designed to protect the lone pamphleteer on the corner, hawking his views on the world. To suppress me is to suppress all nonmainstream voices. Under this law Tom Paine wouldn’t have been able to sell Common Sense on the street, though he could sell it at Barnes & Noble.”
The city won the first round earlier this year, when the magistrate judge, Arlander Keys, ruled that Chicago had the right to keep Weinberg from peddling his book on the sidewalk on the grounds that he was clogging the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Weinberg appealed and hired former alderman Martin Oberman to argue his case. On November 20 he won a reversal from a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
In December, Weinberg was back on the street, selling his Wirtz book and giving away autographed copies of the appellate court’s decision. “It’s been great–people couldn’t be nicer,” he says. “A lot of the fans said, ‘Where have you been? We’ve missed you.’ One police lieutenant congratulated me and said, ‘I was hoping you’d win.’ It’s like in The Wizard of Oz when they kill the witch and everyone says, ‘Hail Dorothy.'”
He also distributed a tongue-in-cheek “open letter from Mayor Daley,” on what looks like city stationery. The letter–which is obviously not written by Daley–urges “all true Blackhawks fans not to purchase this vicious, seditious, mean-spirited, little book, and instead save your hard-earned money for more wholesome family activities, like at the casino I plan to build alongside the Picasso in Daley Plaza.”
The letter, signed “Richard M. Daley, mayor for life,” probably guarantees that the city will continue its appeal, no matter how much it costs. For Weinberg’s letter defies a central tenet adopted by more mainstream opponents of city policies–never, ever poke fun at the boss.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.