ACLU of Arkansas Defends Man Ticketed for Distributing Literature in National Park
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
LITTLE ROCK, AR — The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas today defended a man who received a ticket and $100 fine for distributing flyers in a Ouachita National Park.
The man, Chris Burch, was handing out flyers on July 4, 1999, describing a recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sell off part of the Ouachita Park land to a private developer; the flyer also contained information on how to contact legislators, and notified park patrons of an upcoming public meeting on the subject sponsored by the Sierra Club.
A park ranger asked Burch to stop handing out flyers to park patrons, but Burch insisted it was his constitutional right to do so. When Burch would not stop, the Ranger gave him a ticket for violating park regulations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations at the time only prohibited certain forms of “advertisement” or “commercial activity” without a permit from the district supervisor.
“It is unusual for the ACLU to defend a client in a criminal matter, but here the ‘crime’ was the exercise of a constitutional right,” said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “With the disappearance of the public square, there are few remaining places where people can try to persuade others, face to face, on matters of public concern.
“Mr. Burch was trying to tell park patrons about plans which would, in his opinion, seriously threaten the future of the park – an issue very likely of immediate interest to his audience,” Sklar continued. “I can think of no better example of the value of the First Amendment.”
Arguing before U.S. Magistrate Bobby E. Shepherd, the ACLU today asserted that Burch was not engaged in advertising and, that even if he was, the regulation was unconstitutional.
The ACLU contended that because the regulation gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unfettered discretion to deny or approve a permit, it is a prior restraint on free speech.
“The mere existence of this discretion, even if it’s not abused, intimidates people into censoring their own speech,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Clayton Blackstock of Little Rock.
The judge said he would enter a written order within the next 10 days.
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