Municipal Restrictions on Door-to-Door Canvassing Violate First Amendment

Affiliate: ACLU of Indiana
March 14, 2013 1:01 pm

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Indianapolis – The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana today filed lawsuits against two Indiana municipalities that passed ordinances regulating the activities of door-to-door canvassers, saying those laws violate the right of free expression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuits, both on behalf of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, were filed against the Town of Yorktown and the City of Jeffersonville. Both municipalities passed ordinances in 2012 that require canvassers to endure lengthy and cost-prohibitive licensing procedures before soliciting door-to-door in those communities. Both ordinances mandate payment of substantial fees for each person applying for a license, restrict canvassing activity to certain hours, and permit a license action to be denied at the discretion of government officials.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of residential canvassing in ensuring a robust debate on public issues,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose. “The First Amendment does not permit the government to curtail this activity in the manner chosen by both Yorktown and Jeffersonville simply because canvassers also ask for voluntary donations.”

CAC canvassers go door-to-door in residential neighborhoods during evening hours to educate citizens and gather petition signatures on issues such as utility rates and regulations, health care and the environment. The CAC has found, after years of engaging in canvassing, that during the hours of 7-9 p.m., they are most likely to find people at home who are willing to listen, and perhaps make a donation to the grass-roots, nonprofit organization.

The fees and directives imposed by both Yorktown and Jeffersonville for canvassers to engage in expressive activity violate the First Amendment. If CAC were to have 10 canvassers in Jeffersonville, for example, it would be required to pay $1,000 in licensing fees. In Yorktown the activity could cost each canvasser $50 per week in addition to the $150 application fee.

“Through door-to-door democracy, CAC has been able to effectively advocate for nearly four decades on behalf of Hoosiers regarding energy policy, utility reform, health care, pollution prevention and family farms,” stated Kerwin Olson, Executive Director of CAC. “With the help of the ACLU of Indiana, we will be diligent in working to protect our constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

ACLU of Indiana Executive Director Jane Henegar said, “The ACLU will always defend the free exchange of ideas and information. Once government places unnecessarily restrictive limitations on how we engage our neighbors, protest in public places, or even how we use Facebook, the core strength of America’s democracy is diminished.”

The case Citizens Action Coalition, Inc. v. Town of Yorktown, No. 1:13-cv 422, was filed in the United States District Court Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. The case Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana v. City of Jeffersonville, No. 4:13-cv-38, was filed in the United States District Court Southern District New Albany Division. The ACLU of Indiana is being assisted in both cases by William R. Groth of Fillenwarth, Dennerline, Groth & Towe, LLP, and Jennifer Washburn of CAC.

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