ACLU of Rhode Island Challenges Political Canvassing Restrictions

May 8, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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EAST GREENWICH, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a community advocacy group challenging an East Greenwich Town Council ordinance barring the group from engaging in political door-to-door canvassing between 7 and 9 p.m., and requiring payment of a permit fee for the group’s canvassing activities.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), argues that the restrictions violate the group’s First Amendment rights.

“The courts have repeatedly said that door-to-door canvassing and advocacy are quintessential acts of free speech, which cannot be limited without compelling reason,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “But under the East Greenwich ordinance, it would appear that Girls Scouts who wanted to sell cookies would be in violation if they didn’t get a permit first.”

ACORN, which advocates for moderate and low-income people on a range of issues, says that political canvassing is a “vital part” of the organization’s program, and is an effective way for the group to disseminate information about its activities, obtain signatures on petitions and solicit donations to fund its work. The organization generally canvasses between the hours of 4:00 and 9:00 p.m. in every community, and the canvassers say that they achieve the best response between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. The ordinance also requires applicants to obtain a permit at least five days prior to the time when they wish to canvass.

The ACLU noted that ACORN has engaged in canvassing throughout Rhode Island for six years without incident. The lawsuit argues that the town’s ordinances are “not narrowly tailored to meet a substantial or compelling governmental interest,” and that less restrictive means are available to regulate canvassing activities in the town.

The ACLU is asking the court for a temporary restraining order against continued enforcement of the challenged restrictions, as well as compensatory damages for ACORN’s lost income.

Carolyn Mannis, the ACLU cooperating attorney who filed today’s lawsuit, said that numerous court cases have struck down these types of restrictions on non-profit canvassing across the country. In Rhode Island, the ACLU recently acted on behalf of Clean Water Action and challenged an ordinance in the town of Johnston that prohibited door-to-door canvassing after 7:00 p.m.

“Only a year ago, the ACLU favorably settled a lawsuit against the town of Johnston, which also banned political canvassing after 7:00 p.m.,” Mannis said. “We are confident that when the court examines the restrictions imposed by the town of East Greenwich, it will agree that they also unconstitutionally restrict ACORN’s First Amendment rights.”

A hearing on the ACLU’s request is expected in a few days.

A copy of the complaint is online at www.riaclu.org/friendly/documents/ACORNComplaint.pdf

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