City to Repeal "Get a License to Talk" Law, Court Approves Final Settlement of ACLU Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
May 8, 2001 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Washington
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


SEATTLE, WA — A U.S. District Court judge today permanently barred the enforcement of a City of Medina law that required people to apply for a license from town officials and submit to a criminal background check before exercising their free speech rights.

“People who are seeking to exercise their political rights by gathering signatures for an initiative campaign shouldn’t have to register with the police,” said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Washington State. “Residents are certainly free to post ‘No Soliciting’ signs on their property, and municipalities may reasonably regulate solicitors, but this law went way too far.”

In today’s ruling, Judge John Coughenour called the law, which was originally written to regulate solicitors, “impermissibly overbroad and vague, chilling constitutionally-protected speech.”

The Medina law restricted people who wanted to distribute printed information, discuss religious or political beliefs, or seek charitable contributions virtually anywhere in Medina.

Although the ordinance was initially written to regulate solicitors, it was so broad that any person who wished to “approach individuals” to “expound beliefs” to “seek signatures on a petition” or to ” disseminate information” in the City of Medina had to first obtain a City-issued license to do so.

Under both the Washington and U.S. constitutions, the government may not put unnecessary burdens on people exercising free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington attempted negotiations with the town council over a period of two years, repeatedly asking the City to amend the ordinance to meet constitutional standards.

After years of unsuccessful negotiations, the ACLU filed suit to block the law in October 2000 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.

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. Both plaintiffs receive no government monies and rely on raising funds by talking to people on a face-to-face basis.

In November 2000, Judge Coughenour issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law.

Today Judge Coughenour also approved a stipulated final judgment settling a lawsuit challenging the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

As part of the settlement, Medina agreed to repeal the licensing and background check provisions of the law, and to pay $22,500 in attorney’s fees and costs.

Cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton and Alice Leiner handled the case for the ACLU.

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.

United States 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.”

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release