I happen to live in Silver Spring, a Maryland suburb of Washington that has staged a successful revitalization of its downtown. Silver Spring landed the headquarters of the Discovery Channel and Montgomery County invested some $450 million into turning a portion of Ellsworth Avenue into what amounts to a roofless shopping mall that attracts many hundreds of people daily to its movie theaters, chain restaurants and shops.

The shopping plaza is privately managed and lately has become the source of some local controversy. A couple of weeks ago, an amateur photographer was told to stop taking pictures by a private security guard. The photographer argued that he had the right to take pictures along a public street, but the company that manages the development said the whole area -- including the street itself -- had been leased from the county and as such was private property, subject to the company's restrictions.

Several dozen photographers decided to spend Independence Day taking pictures in the shopping area as a sign of solidarity. By the time they arrived, the management company had put up a banner saying "Welcome Photographers." It also announced that photography and videography would be allowed within the complex, as long as it wasn't disruptive or done against subjects' will.

So, a happy ending for all concerned. Still, the flap points out an important question in these times of public-private partnerships. With so many privately-managed town squares and town centers cropping up, are these meeting places still public places that should be open to free expression?