Conspiracy Theory

JFK assassination buffs who peddle their wares on the grassy knoll think there's a plot to put them out of business. They may be right.

The vendor war only accounts for some of the ticketing. Cotner admits that the police have become more vigilant since the area achieved landmark status in 1995. "It's got a pretty high profile," he says.

Regardless of why the police have started to enforce the Dallas City Code ordinance on street vendors, the question remains whether the vendors are really violating it.

While the ordinance requires vendors who want to sell their wares in a city park to seek permission from the director of the Dallas Department of Park and Recreation, there is a legal exception that Hayden and others believe cover their activities.

Vendors are permitted to sell non-commercial printed material on city property without a license. The ordinance defines commercial printed material as reading material that has advertising or is essentially an advertisement, and is distributed for the private benefit of the advertiser or distributor.

Tracy Pounders, assistant city attorney, says he thinks the vendors might be violating the ordinance, because they are selling their periodicals for private gain. But a close reading of the ordinance seems to indicate that the city will first have to prove that what the vendors are selling contains, or is essentially, an advertisement. Unfortunately, several of the vendors, including Hayden, will be at a disadvantage. They cannot afford to hire legal representation.

Pounders says it is now up to a court to decide whether the vendors are violating the law, but that hasn't stopped the police from continuing to issue tickets.

Lawyer Brad Kizzia thinks even the video vendors, whose products contain historical footage and interviews with assassination witnesses, have a good chance at beating the tickets. "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that you cannot ban commercial freedom of speech," says Kizzia. "I think this ordinance amounts to such a ban. The legal basis of the ordinance is so vague and ambiguous, you have a First Amendment rights argument."

Dallas criminal attorney Stuart Parker reviewed the ordinance for the Observer. "It would take me a month to sit down and analyze how bad this ordinance is," says Parker. "My reading of the ordinance is that it may be an offense if a vendor selling goods on a public park fails to get permission from the director. Unless you qualify for one of the exceptions, such as selling non-commercial printed material. But the exception is described as a defense to prosecution. That only means that at trial you are entitled to put forth a defense. In other words, the violation has to be disproved.

"I think they still have an issue with the First Amendment," Parker adds. "It's pretty obvious they're just trying to get these guys gone. This is a real shit thing to do."

There is no question that the city has been troubled by the presence of the grassy knoll vendors for some time. City records obtained by the Observer show that as early as 1993 the Downtown Improvement District, headed then by David Biegler, organized a meeting with city officials on what to do about "the influx of unauthorized vendors" at Dealey Plaza.

In spring 1994, Paul Dyer, director of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, contacted Sixth Floor Museum executive director West about the Dallas County Historical Foundation's interest in "enhancing concession promotions at Dealey Plaza."

"It would greatly benefit the city of Dallas to provide patrons with an authorized vendor to supply food and drink, memorabilia, and a neutral interpretation of information regarding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy," Dyer wrote in a letter to West.

This May the Dallas County Historical Foundation submitted a draft of a management agreement to the Park Department. Under it, the city would agree to retain the services of the foundation as exclusive manager and agent for the plaza with responsibilities for managing, operating, vending, leasing, and servicing duties relating to the plaza.

A few weeks later, a Park Department supervisor wrote Pounders seeking his assistance in obtaining city ordinances and city permit information concerning commercial activities on the Dealey Plaza.

"This park site reflects poorly on the city of Dallas as it is constantly barraged with vendors and so-called historians who conduct commercial sales of newspapers, magazines, videotapes, and perform on-site tours, all in relation to the John F. Kennedy assassination," the supervisor wrote. "These vendors have been using the First Amendment as their 'permission' to conduct these activities on Park/City property at this location."

Pounders says he thinks the Park Department is within its authority to license vendors in Dealey Plaza. "You don't want unlimited vendors. It looks junky and impedes pedestrians," Pounders says.

Although the Park Department is still exploring the issue, it maintains that all the vendors operating in the plaza are unauthorized and therefore operating unlawfully, according to assistant park director Mendez, whose east region has jurisdiction over Dealey Plaza.

"If these vendors were really interested in doing the right thing," says Mendez, "they would put in a request for proposal to get a license."

That the Park Department isn't even sure they can license the newspaper and magazine vendors doesn't seem to concern him.

"The issue is how can Dallas put its best foot forward on a national landmark," says Mendez. "At some point in time we will also have to give consideration to the quality of products sold. Over the years, we have gotten complaints from visitors about the gruesomeness of the material. But who decides quality--that's a kettle of fish."

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