WA Court Bars Enforcement of Medina's "Get a License to Talk" Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
November 3, 2000 12:00 am

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SEATTLE–A federal court today barred enforcement of a Medina law requiring people to apply for a license from town officials and submit to a police background check in order to exercise their free speech rights.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Peace Action of Washington, a grassroots nonprofit organization which works for peace causes, and United States Mission, a nonprofit organization which provides housing for homeless people.

U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law. The law restricted people who wanted to distribute printed information, discuss religious or political beliefs, or seek charitable contributions virtually anywhere in Medina, a suburb to the east of Seattle.

“Medina’s law interfered with the right to freedom of speech, And it was so poorly written that it would have forced Girl Scouts selling cookies door to door to register with police and undergo a criminal background check,” said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director for the ACLU of Washington.

The measure under challenge was adopted in February, 2000 by the Medina City Council to regulate solicitors. However, the ordinance was written so broadly that any person who wished to “approach individuals” to “expound beliefs” in the City of Medina had to first obtain a City-issued license to do so. Would-be solicitors had to go through a burdensome application process and undergo a criminal background check.

While town leaders were particularly interested in restricting activists from going door to door, the law defined solicitor to include any person speaking, leafleting, or gathering signatures in public places.

“People seeking signatures for an initiative campaign shouldn’t have to register with the police,” said the ACLU’s Jerry Sheehan. “Residents are certainly free to post ‘No Soliciting’ signs on their property, and local governments may reasonably regulate solicitors, but this law went way too far.”

The ACLU had attempted negotiations with the town council over a period of two years, repeatedly asking the City to amend the ordinance to meet constitutional standards.

Under the Washington and United States Constitutions, government may not put unnecessary burdens on people exercising free speech. Peace Action had planned to distribute information in Medina on the positions of candidates for federal office prior to the November election. U.S. Mission sought immediate action from the court because the holiday season is a critical time for its charitable fundraising.

ACLU clients in the case receive no government monies and rely on raising funds by talking to people on a face-to-face basis. U.S. Mission is a religiously based nonprofit organization that operates transitional housing for homeless persons who participate in a self-help work program. Participants in the program conduct door-to-door solicitation as part of the organization’s practice of the “Social Gospel.”

Peace Action of Washington is a membership organization that focuses on issues of peace, justice, and violence reduction. The group prepares information on the voting records and positions of candidates and distributes voter guides to citizens door to door.

Medina’s law applies to “every person who shall seek charitable contributions, seek signatures on a petition, seek to disseminate information, seek to expound beliefs, seek new members on behalf of any political, religious or charitable organization(s) or distribute written or printed materials by going from house to house, or from place to place, or by standing in a doorway, or in any other place not used by such person as permanent place of business, or by approaching individuals.”

ACLU attorney Kevin Hamilton of the law firm Perkins Coie is handling the case.

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