ACLU Challenges Rhode Island Town's Political Canvassing Restrictions

March 17, 2004 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEPROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an environmental group challenging a town’s ban on door-to-door political canvassing between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis on behalf of Clean Water Action, argues that the Johnston Town Council’s restriction, imposed at a meeting last month, violates the group’s First Amendment rights.

“”We are confident that when the court examines the restriction imposed by the Johnston Town Council, it will agree that the action was an unconstitutional restriction on Clean Water Action’s First Amendment rights,”” Mannis said.

The restriction was imposed after a Town Councilor said that people in his district complained about canvassers “”knocking on the door”” late at night. However, Mannis noted that the nighttime canvassing ban harms not only the organization, but also those residents who welcome the information the canvassers provide. Johnston, located near the state capital of Providence, has a population of approximately 28,000.

Tracy Carlson of Clean Water Action added: “”We believe that residents of Johnston support the good work Clean Water Action has done in the community for the past thirteen years and look forward to continuing our work with them.””

The lawsuit notes that door-to-door canvassing is a “”vital part”” of the organization’s program, and is an effective way for Clean Water Action to disseminate information about its activities, obtain signatures on petitions, and solicit donations to fund its work. The hours of 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. are the organization’s standard canvassing period in every community, and the canvassers find that they achieve the best response between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. The Town’s restriction, the ACLU said in legal papers, “”is not narrowly tailored to meet a substantial or compelling governmental interest,”” and less restrictive means are available to regulate canvassing activities in the town. The ACLU pointed to numerous court cases that have struck down similar restrictions.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against continued enforcement of the restriction, as well as compensatory damages for the group’s lost income. A hearing on the ACLU’s request is expected in a few days.

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