ACLU of Georgia Sues City Over Arrest of Political Activist During Fourth of July Celebrations

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
May 27, 2004 12:00 am

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Peaceful Collection of Ballot Signatures in Public Park Deemed Illegal by Rome Police


ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a local activist, Georgia’s Green Party and the Libertarian Party of Georgia, saying that police violated their rights when they were blocked from collecting ballot signatures in a public park during a Fourth of July celebration.

“Collecting signatures to place a candidate on the ballot is not only a fundamental right, but it is also the only way for an independent candidate to get on the ballot,” said Debbie Seagraves, Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia.

“It is ironic that people seeking to increase participation in our democracy were arrested at a Fourth of July celebration,” she added. “How can we have free and fair elections if local governments block the petition process?”

The lawsuit arose from an incident on July 4, 2002, when volunteers for the Green Party and the Libertarian Party were driven out of Ridge Ferry Park in Rome for seeking to peacefully collect signatures from the 20,000 people present for a fireworks display. The police cited a city code that prohibits any activity that could “interfere with the use and enjoyment of the recreation facility by other persons.”

While most volunteers ceased their activities when faced with likely arrest, Mitch Lawson asserted his constitutional rights and was arrested for “solicitation of a political petition in a public park.”

“There is a reason the Founding Fathers put our freedom of speech as the first of ten primary rights protected by the Bill of Rights,” said Glenn Tatum, Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Georgia. “It is our duty as citizens to protect and defend these rights.”

Denice Traina, Co-Chair of the Georgia Green Party, explained that Georgia’s ballot access process is onerous and restrictive. “We are confident that the courts will strike down this absurd ordinance which resulted in the arrest of a Green Party activist. He was merely petitioning to put our candidates on the ballot in compliance with the Georgia Election Code. Any semblance of Constitutionality for this ballot access requirement is dependent on our ability to freely exercise our right to petition.”

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District, Rome Division, seeks an order preventing the city from enforcing the ordinance and compensatory damages.

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