Pennsylvania Town Suspends Restrictions on Door-to-Door Canvassing Under Threat of ACLU Lawsuit

August 28, 2003 12:00 am


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PITTSBURGH — Officials in Kennedy Township in Western Pennsylvania today agreed to the American Civil Liberties Union’s request that it suspend enforcement of a new ordinance that restricts peoples’ right to go door-to-door to discuss political, religious and other issues face-to-face with community residents.

Witold Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU’s legal director, called the Township’s decision to suspend enforcement prudent. “The Supreme Court ruled just last year that municipalities cannot require people to register with the government before they knock on their neighbors’ door. There is no more important free speech principle in this country.”

Kennedy’s Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the ordinance on August 11, 2003, over objections from a community resident who said that the ACLU had already advised her that the new law violated constitutional free speech guarantees.

The Pittsburgh ACLU, acting on behalf of community residents Joan Sakai and Michelle Bittner, sent a letter on August 26 to town officials requesting that it immediately suspend enforcement of the law or face a federal civil rights lawsuit. Today, the Township agreed to suspend enforcement of the law while it studies the ACLU’s objections.

Bittner, a candidate for a Montour School District Board Director position in November elections, lauded the Township’s decision. “The school district is facing some very serious issues, and I want to be able to hear directly from my potential constituents about their views and I want them to hear mine. The best way to do that is to go door-to-door where you can establish rapport with a person and have a meaningful conversation.”

The ACLU’s August 26 letter cited three problematic provisions in the new Kennedy Township law:

  1. some political and/or non-profit-group solicitors had to register with the police and get a permit before going door-to-door;
  2. between October 1 and March 31 no soliciting could occur after 6:00 p.m.; and
  3. the Township would maintain a “no-knock” list of people who didn’t want to be solicited and a violation of that restriction carried hefty fines and a possible jail terms.

In its letter, the ACLU advised the Township of 2002 Supreme Court decision holding that a law very similar to the Pennsylvania law was an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The letter is online at http://www.aclupgh.org/pdf/20030828-township_letter.pdf

Kim Watterson of the Pittsburgh law firm Thorp Reed & Armstrong, who is handling the case as an ACLU cooperating attorney, noted that the Supreme Court had also addressed concerns about potential privacy and crime problems. “A registration law will not deter a would-be burglar or vandal, since they are already undeterred by possible lengthy prison sentences. And if people don’t want to be bothered by any canvassers, they can post a sign on their property saying so.”

Watterson added that it is important for other potential canvassers, including candidates for political office, to know that they are free to knock on Kennedy Township residents’ doors on any day up to 9:00 p.m. Residents are equally free to tell canvassers that they aren’t interested in speaking to them. “Individual homeowners, not the government, must decide to whom they want to speak,” she said.

The ACLU will ask Kennedy Township to decide whether it will make the requested changes to the law within a certain period of time. A lawsuit will only be filed if they decline to correct the constitutional problems within a reasonable time.

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