Court overturns town’s restriction on signature gathering at festival

Court overturns town’s restriction on signature gathering at festival

The First Amendment usually protects people who gather signatures to put initiatives on the ballot, when the signature gathering occurs on public property. State constitutions sometimes protect signature gathering even on private property where people congregate, such as in shopping malls.

But events on public property sometimes expel signature gatherers anyway. Libertarian candidate Bruce Guthrie was arrested for petitioning at the Edmonds Arts Festival in a public park, even though he was peaceful, civil, and non-confrontational in gathering signatures. As the Lynnwood Times notes, “In Washington state, a private shopping center that functions as the equivalent of a ‘public forum’ (a traditional free speech venue, such as a town square) must provide access to persons gathering signatures on state initiative petitions. The shopping center may impose ‘time, place, and manner’ regulations that do not unreasonably restrict the access right.”

Today, a federal judge struck down an Arkansas town limit on signature gathering, in For AR Kids v. Town of Rose Bud, involving a proposed voter initiative that would expand the state’s role in education and thus likely lead to tax increases:

For AR Kids is a Ballot Question Committee organized under Arkansas Law in December 2023 with the purpose of placing its “Educational Rights Amendment of 2024” on the November 2024 ballot. The proposed amendment would amend Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution to, among other things, require all schools receiving public funds to meet identical standards and would require universal access to pre-K education…

Plaintiff challenges the Town’s ordinance No. 2024-03 passed and adopted by the Town on June 17, 2024. The Ordinance provides in part that “any business or religious or political entity desiring to solicit business, membership or signature for any purpose will be required to rent a booth or spot as selected by the City of Rose Bud, Arkansas, at any such event from which and only from which such solicitation activities may be conducted.”} The Town seeks to enforce Ordinance No. 2024-03 at its upcoming event “Summerfest” which takes place in a public park from June 20, 2024, at 4 p.m. until June 22.

The Ordinance was first introduced at a meeting of the Town Council on June 13, 2024, after a member of the Ballot Question Committee inquired about seeking petition signatures at Summerfest.

Mayor Gorham stated at the June 13, 2024, meeting that Summerfest is happy to host the speech of political parties, but not the speech of ballot question committees because “this is a family environment, there is nothing political about this, this is not the type of place that you want to come and get bombarded and asked to sign a petition and read about it or anything like that.”

Mayor Gorham clarified that the canvassers could not totally be banned under the law. He stated, “[i]t is not my belief that they should be out there, that they should be allowed to be out there, or what they’re doing is right. I want that known, because what’s on their ballot, I don’t think 98 percent of the town agrees with, but there’s nothing we can do, except vote the right people out and the right people in in November.”

Plaintiff applied to rent a booth on at Summerfest on Saturday, June 22, 2024. At the hearing, the parties agreed that plaintiff could maintain the booth that it rented throughout Summerfest from June 20-22, 2024.

At the hearing, defendants agreed that Ordinance No. 2024-03 does not regulate plaintiff from seeking signatures for its petition on public rights-of-way surrounding Summerfest including on Baseball Field Road and School Road.

Defendants maintain that plaintiff is prohibited from soliciting signatures for its petition on the Town-owned property immediately outside the Summerfest entrance because it is Town-owned property….

Plaintiff has established a likelihood of success on the merits based on the record before the Court…. Plaintiff has also established the threat of irreparable harm based on the First Amendment interests involved and plaintiff’s inability to collect an adequate number of signatures before the July 5, 2024, deadline. Based on the record before the Court at this stage in the proceedings, the balance of the equities favors protecting the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by granting the temporary restraining order….

In the ruling, Chief Judge Kristine Baker granted an ex parte emergency temporary restraining order against the ordinance that will last only a few weeks (until she decides whether to grant a longer-lasting preliminary injunction), so it was issued before the City even filed an opposing brief, although its attorney participated in the oral argument about whether to grant a temporary restraining order against the ordinance. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports,

Searcy attorney Don Raney, representing the city of Rose Bud, argued at Thursday’s hearing that the ordinance was written only to ensure that festival-goers would have a good time and not have to deal with canvassers.

“Everybody is for freedom of speech,” Raney said, “but sometimes there’s a right of freedom from speech.”

It reminds me of the religious broadcaster who objected to having to hear rock music in public, citing what he called “the freedom of ears.”

LU Staff

LU Staff

Promoting and defending liberty, as defined by the nation’s founders, requires both facts and philosophical thought, transcending all elements of our culture, from partisan politics to social issues, the workings of government, and entertainment and off-duty interests. Liberty Unyielding is committed to bringing together voices that will fuel the flame of liberty, with a dialogue that is lively and informative.


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