A city rule clarification adopted in October 2015 formally limits public use of Salem’s City Hall “Atrium,” the wide covered courtyard inside the civic center. Also affected is public use of the breezeways adjacent to city offices.

Now, officially, neither is available for public assembly.

The policy to clarify city management of the space was introduced by City Attorney Dan Atchison last fall. Prior to the vote, councilors reviewed a staff report in support of the clarification. The report that said the Atrium, while open to the public and for visitors coming to the Civic Center Plaza for specific purposes, “is not intended to be used as a traditional public park or public square” and that the breezeways connecting City offices are for the purpose of allowing access to City offices, “and are not public forums.”

Courtney Knox Busch, Strategic Initiatives Manager for the City Manager explains, “The historical use of the Atrium has been for internal City staff and City-conducted community meetings, much like Loucks Auditorium at the Library.”

Meanwhile, the majority of past public gatherings and assemblies to demonstrate, protest, or simply to show support for a particular issue, Knox Busch says, “have taken place either at Peace Plaza or the courtyard area north of the Council Chambers.”

Those areas are traditional public forums that the public is still free and welcome to assemble and conduct expressive activities, subject only to certain city restrictions (such as no amplified sound, alcohol, smoking, etc).

The Atrium, however, is now formally defined as more like the lobby to the Civic Center.

“Large assemblies cause disruption for City employees and visitors to the Civic Center,” says Knox Busch, “and may present security concerns depending on the nature of the assembly.”

As for the numerous breezeways or exterior walkways within the Civic Center, these provide the primary means of access for both the public and City staff to visit city departments. “In the event of a large public assembly in the breezeways,” Knox Busch says, “City staff and the public would be virtually unable to move from department to department within the Civic Center.”

The intent of the Policy is to direct large assemblies to more appropriate locations, and Knox Busch emphasizes that the public is still welcome to visit the Atrium. “However, to the extent assemblies disrupt the public’s and City staff’s access to the Civic Center, those assemblies will be asked to relocate to a more appropriate location.” The adopted Policy “establishes that the Atrium is not intended to be a place for such assemblies, and gives authority and direction for City staff to address such issues when they arise.”

The City Attorney’s office prepared the policy clarification, and the issues were originally reviewed by the Council Rules Committee. The clarification was reviewed and approved by Salem City Council on October 26.