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ACLU Challenges Political Canvassing Restrictions in Johnston

Posted: March 17, 2004|Category: Free Speech

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The ACLU of Rhode Island has today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the environmental group Clean Water Action, challenging a Johnston Town Council directive barring the group from engaging in political door-to-door canvassing between 7 and 9 PM. The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis, argues that the restriction, imposed at a Town Council meeting last month, violates the group’s First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit notes that door-to-door canvassing is a “vital part” of the organization’s program, and is an effective way for Clean Water Action to disseminate information about its activities, obtain signatures on petitions and solicit donations to fund its work. The hours of 4 to 9 PM are the organization’s standard canvassing hours in every community, and the canvassers find that they achieve the best response between 6 and 9 PM. The suit argues that the Town’s restriction “is 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. In papers filed with the suit, the ACLU points to numerous court cases that have struck down similar restrictions.

The restriction was imposed after a Town Councilor said that people in his district complained about canvassers “knocking on the door” late at night. However, the ACLU’s Mannis noted that the night-time canvassing ban harms not only the organization, but also those residents who welcome the information the canvassers provide. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order against continued enforcement of the restriction, as well as compensatory damages for the group’s lost income.

The ACLU’s Mannis said today: “ We are confident that when the court examines the restriction imposed by the Johnston Town Council, it will agree that the action was an unconstitutional restriction on Clean Water Actions First Amendment rights.” Tracy Carlson of Clean Water Action added: “ We believe that residents of Johnston support the good work Clean Water Action has done in the community for the past thirteen years and look forward to continuing our work with them.” A hearing on the ACLU’s request is expected in a few days.

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