ACLU Challenges "Get a License to Talk" Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
October 23, 2000 12:00 am

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SEATTLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order to bar enforcement of an ordinance that requires 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 law targets those people who want to distribute printed information, discuss religious or political beliefs, or seek charitable contributions anywhere in Medina, a Seattle suburb.

“Medina’s law is poorly crafted, overly broad, and interferes with the right to freedom of speech,” said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director for the ACLU of Washington. “Under this law, even Girl Scouts selling cookies door to door have to register with government officials and undergo a criminal background check.”

The ACLU lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle 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. Neither group receives government monies and both rely on raising funds by talking to people on a face-to-face basis.

In addition to seeking a temporary restraining order this week, the ACLU is asking for a declaration by the court that the law is invalid.

Medina’s city council adopted the measure in February in an effort to regulate solicitors in their community. While the town leaders were particularly interested in restricting activists from going door to door, the law defines solicitor as any person who is speaking, leafleting, or gathering signatures in public places.

Under the Medina ordinance, any person who wishes to “approach individuals” to “expound beliefs” must first obtain a City-issued license to do so. Would-be solicitors must first submit an application and undergo a criminal background check.

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

Under both the U.S. and Washington state constitutions, the government is restricted from placing unnecessary burdens on people exercising free speech.

The ACLU had attempted past negotiations with the town council, repeatedly asking the City to amend the ordinance to meet constitutional standards.

ACLU attorney Kevin Hamilton of the law firm Perkins Coie will represent Peace Action and U.S. Mission.

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