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Some apparently flouting law on courthouse steps.

Byline: Matt Cooper The Register-Guard

In the heart of downtown Eugene, Lane County has dedicated a plaza to free speech.

On Saturday afternoon, across the street from Eugene's bustling Saturday Market, the free speech included:

"Morphine? Mushrooms?"

"Nuggets?"

"Buds?"

"Anybody want to buy some herb? Anybody want to buy some herb?"

This apparent drug-dealing chatter was overheard from a grungy group of teens and adults who collect on Saturdays on the plaza, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and smoking what appears to be marijuana, with general disregard for the law - and, in some cases, firing up glass pipes while sitting literally at the door of the Lane County Courthouse.

Whether this is a problem seems to depend on your point of view.

Fed up with what they see as abuse of the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza outside the courthouse doors, the Lane County commissioners voted unanimously last week to ask the Eugene Police Department to crack down on crime on the county's doorstep.

Whether it will happen remains to be seen. A Eugene police official said the request will be reviewed as soon as it arrives on paper - but said the area historically hasn't generated a lot of calls for enforcement.

"Anecdotally, there aren't a significant number of complaints that come in associated with that area," Eugene police spokeswoman Pam Olshanski said.

The county is vexed by a number of issues at its downtown headquarters, which includes the Public Service Building, the courthouse and the plaza, all located at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street.

Besides the alleged drug use, county commissioners say they can't keep up with the rest of the seamy underside of maintaining a public gathering place - vandalism, excessive noise, trash and even public urination and defecation.

County Management Services Director David Suchart recently took the noise issue head on, cutting off electricity that was used by speakers in the free-speech area to amplify sound.

That angered one group that believes it used the plaza to a positive end: The Wayne Morse Youth Program, which, like the plaza itself, is named for the fiery U.S. senator from Oregon.

The youth group had organized a free-speech program on Saturdays at the plaza, where speakers could use a communal microphone to address political issues, strum a guitar or recite a poem.

Since the recent shut-off of power, the group's teens and young adults have turned to exercising their freedom of speech during commissioners' meetings, where they've repeatedly tried to drum home the idea that theirs was a noble exercise in a public area stained by ignoble ones.

The free-speech program "was more like putting a flower into an empty lot that sort of sucks," one young man told the commissioners.

Trying to defuse even the hint of censorship, Commissioner Bobby Green, who first brought the plaza issue to the board, has repeatedly stressed that cutting off power wasn't done to cut off free speech.

That raises the question of what, in fact, the move has accomplished: During an hourlong visit to the free-speech plaza Saturday at 4 p.m., the youth program was nowhere to be found, but plenty else was going on.

Amid sporadic rain, a crowd milled about under the shelter that leads to the front door of the county building and courthouse, the smell of marijuana and the proliferation of glass pipes all the more startling given the backdrop of the county's seat of justice.

A dopey-eyed youth asked a passer-by about "buds," then growled a challenge when shoulders brushed. Two young men fingered through what appeared to be a pile of marijuana buds, spread out on the concrete.

A young woman carrying a container of fuel doused the swinging ends of two straps and set them ablaze, breaking into an impromptu fire-dancing performance.

During the next hour, eight police cruisers drove by - six from Eugene police, two from the Lane County Sheriff's Office. Some in the crowd muttered warnings of the law-enforcement presence, but none of the patrol cars stopped.

Criminal activity, although on county property, is under Eugene police jurisdiction, Olshanski said.

If the county asks for help, "it would be responded to accordingly," she added.

Eugene police maintain there hasn't been a strong call for enforcement. But the voices calling for it are becoming louder. "I have heard (that) drugs are being taken and sold, all kinds of vandalism, in the courthouse!" thundered former U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver, during last week's commissioners' meeting. "That is a shame and a disgrace that this is happening, in the courthouse."
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Title Annotation:Government; The county turns to the city for help policing the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 16, 2006
Words:756
Previous Article:Egg hunt not for chickens.
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