Dear Municipal Officials: The First Amendment Protects Door-to-Door Canvassers

Credit: Chris Goldberg, via flickr

Dear mayors, police chiefs, and other local government officials,

In the near future, you may see an increase in people in your towns going door-to-door to strike up conversations with residents. These politically engaged folks are actively pursuing votes for their candidates of choice, a time-honored tradition since the founding of the republic. With Labor Day passed and Election Day in the near future, all political parties will be ramping up their get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

Your inclination may be to restrict this activity, or to enforce an old, outdated ordinance that requires such canvassers to first jump through any number of hoops, like giving police advance notice or fingerprinting people who will be doing the canvassing or forcing canvassers to pay a fee or to provide a criminal background check. Here at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we’ve already received complaints that some municipalities in the commonwealth have been doing just that, including in Lackawanna, Beaver, Delaware, and Bucks counties.

Our advice to you, as leaders of local government in Pennsylvania, is simple: Don’t do it. The Supreme Court of the United States has been clear on this point. Governments cannot restrict people from going door-to-door for noncommercial purposes between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. “Noncommercial” includes people who will be trying to convince residents of your towns to vote for their preferred candidate.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a municipal ordinance prohibiting any “canvassers, solicitors, peddlers, hawkers, itinerant merchants or transient vendors” from “going in and upon private property … without first registering in the office of the Mayor and obtaining a Solicitation Permit” was overbroad and violated the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantees in a case called Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Village of Stratton. Your solicitor might want to check it out. It was an 8-1 decision; it wasn’t even close.

In 2006, the ACLU won a lawsuit on behalf of political GOTV canvassers who challenged a municipal pre-registration requirement. In Service Employees International Union v. Municipality of Mt. Lebanon, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals declared that even a minimally burdensome “registration,” or advance-notice, requirement prior to people canvassing door-to-door violates the First Amendment.

By the way, that lawsuit cost the borough of Mount Lebanon in Allegheny County $65,000 in litigation fees and costs, which is typical in civil rights cases.

The only people who can stop canvassers from coming to their doors are the residents themselves, who can legally post “no soliciting” signs on their property.
When the government respects people’s constitutional rights, everyone wins. But, if necessary, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has no qualms about protecting the First Amendment rights of people who want to express themselves politically by talking with the residents of your towns about the upcoming election. If your police department tries to prohibit someone from going door-to-door, that person is welcome to contact us at this link.

Hopefully it won’t come to that. This memo and this FAQ should give you all of the guidance you need. You took an oath to uphold the constitution. We expect you to honor it.

Sincerely,
The team at the ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU PA Offers Testimony at Hearing on Police Accountability Following Murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

ACLU PA Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol

By Elizabeth Randol, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Back in June, I attended a convening with my ACLU colleagues who are working on the Campaign for Smart Justice to reduce mass incarceration by 50% and address systemic racial disparities in the criminal justice system. For three days in Pittsburgh, Campaign for Smart Justice organizers and communicators from across the country had planned on intensive strategy and skill-sharing sessions to make our campaigning as powerful as possible.

Then, on the morning of our second day, we learned that just a few miles away, an East Pittsburgh police officer had gunned down a teenager, Antwon Rose Jr., with three shots to the back as Rose fled a traffic stop.  

Putting aside our planned agenda, we quickly decided to rally and march in solidarity with the Rose family in community protests that evening in East Pittsburgh and the next day in front of the Allegheny County Courthouse.

As the Rose family continues to demand justice for Antwon, we all ask the same question about this case: How was the officer who murdered Antwon just hours into his first day of work in East Pittsburgh hired in the first place despite a long record of disciplinary issues at other departments around the county?

Last week, I testified at a public hearing regarding police training and accountability in Wilkinsburg which is, like East Pittsburgh, a borough just outside Pittsburgh city limits.

The joint hearing, convened by the PA House and Senate Democratic Policy committees and co-hosted by Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), was in direct response to the murder of Antwon Rose, Jr.

The goal of the hearing was to educate lawmakers about what can be done to improve police training and how best to hold an officer accountable when they violate their code of conduct or themselves break the law. The hope is that this, and other public hearings and conversations, will lead to legislation that codifies better training and accountability in police departments statewide.

One recurring theme was the need for better diversity training for all police officers. Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman, a law enforcement official for more than forty years, recounted that when she took over her department the training budget for more than twenty officers was only $1500. “Today,” she proudly noted, “it’s no less than $50,000 for training.”

Wilkinsburg Chief of Police Ophelia Coleman

But, Chief Coleman reminded the lawmakers, training alone is not enough. In a perfect world, officers would be patrolling areas in which they are also community members. Calling her department one of the “best kept secrets” in terms of law enforcement in the commonwealth, Chief Coleman shared what she feels makes the officers in her department so successful: “They’re community oriented police with a capital C-O-P.”  

While it’s clear that more training for police is needed across the board, what is equally clear is that training without clear accountability to the community is nothing more than window dressing.

The good news is, when it comes to police accountability, there was a clear interest in tackling the issue among the lawmakers in attendance.  

Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) called for the open sharing of information about officers and a statewide officer database. Sen. Art Haywood (D-Montgomery) referenced legislation he introduced this session that would require the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to handle cases in which police officers used deadly force. Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) recently proposed a bill package to improve police-community relationships. And House representatives are expected to introduce a series of other reforms in the coming days and weeks.

When it came time to deliver my testimony, I echoed many of the concerns already raised by advocates, agencies, and law enforcement officials at the hearing. I decided to highlight a few important police accountability reforms enacted in other states, including stricter hiring practices, stronger disciplinary procedures, standardized use of force policies, mandated implicit bias training, enhanced data collection and reporting, and the creation of independent investigations to prosecute officer-involved shootings.

After each instance of police violence, communities all too frequently are left waiting for their lawmakers to respond. Pennsylvanians deserve comprehensive and meaningful reforms that improve community-police relationships, de-escalate police use of force, and that will truly hold police officers accountable for their actions.

“Don’t just introduce legislation that’s easy to pass,” I urged the legislators, “Be bold and show your constituents where you stand by showing them what is possible.”

After I spoke, several legislators asked if the ACLU-PA could provide them with additional resources or assist with writing legislation to address these critical issues. I agreed that we could and would.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania looks forward to being an active participant in drafting and supporting bold and meaningful reform legislation. Justice for Antwon Rose, Jr. and far too many others like him is only possible when we ensure police are better trained and held accountable for their actions when they commit acts of violence.

Politicians in Harrisburg are Using People With Down Syndrome

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 2050, a bill that attempts to restrict abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. They did so without holding a single public hearing, and the bill is now before the state Senate. I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome, and I can tell you what this bill truly is: an attack on a woman’s right to control her own reproductive care decisions in our commonwealth.

The bill would make it a felony to terminate a pregnancy based solely on a prenatal diagnosis that a fetus has Down syndrome. It copies legislative efforts in several other states that restrict abortion access and are now facing legal challenges over their constitutionality. It’s also an infuriating exploitation of people with Down syndrome as political pawns by Harrisburg politicians so eager to interfere with Pennsylvanians’ reproductive freedom.

There are a lot of misperceptions of what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. The reality is that never before have the opportunities been so great for people with cognitive disabilities, from employment opportunities to the level of acceptance in society. If this proposed legislation was truly about protecting the wellbeing of people with Down syndrome, then it would mandate more funding for genetic education and genetic counseling about the realities of having a child with Down syndrome.

Any parent with a child with Down syndrome will tell you their child is a blessing, and our son Lior has added so much to my family. Now 27, he attended a two-year program at Temple University for people with cognitive disabilities and works full-time while living in an independent living community. It’s critical that people understand the possibilities that exist for people with cognitive disabilities, including specially designed college programs and state and local services. Any new legislation should focus on widening access to such possibilities.

The Liebling family

It makes me angry that people with Down syndrome are being used as bargaining chips in Harrisburg to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her reproductive healthcare. This is purely a manipulative play by anti-abortion legislators, one that we need to fight not only in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but nationwide.

Not all people whose lives are touched by Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities agree that this bill is the way to advocate for people with those disabilities. Having Lior has brought immeasurable joy to my family, and I’m so glad he came into our lives. But that doesn’t mean parenthood is my – or Harrisburg politicians’ – decision to make for anyone else.

Take action! Tell your state senator to vote NO on House Bill 2050 by clicking this link. Women’s access to reproductive healthcare depends on it!

It’s Time to Get Real About Race and the Death Penalty

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

SQ Lethal Injection Room

Two weeks ago, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and granted a reprieve from execution to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Wolf will continue granting reprieves- a power he is granted by law – until an analysis commissioned by the state Senate returns with its recommendations and “all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

In his announcement of the moratorium, Wolf referred to capital punishment as “unjust” and cited several reasons for using the word. In his memorandum that explained the moratorium, he spent several paragraphs discussing the role of race in capital punishment.

Death penalty abolitionists don’t use race as one of their top tier messages, and who can blame them? A 2007 survey found that support for capital punishment actually goes up when white respondents hear messages of racial disparity. White America is still sticking its collective fingers in its ears when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania has consistently shown a penchant for sentencing black defendants to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 188 people on death row in the commonwealth, 120 of them, or 64 percent, are people of color, as of October 1, 2014. Over the 15 years that I have been involved in death penalty repeal work, that number has been as high as 70 percent.

A study by Professor David Baldus and his colleagues at the University of Iowa found that a black defendant in Philadelphia was 3.9 times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant in a similar case.

The Baldus study was 17 years ago and was based on data from 1983 to 1993. As part of the Senate-supported analysis, researchers are trying to update the question of race and the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, according to one of my sources, at least one high-profile district attorney stymied that work for months by refusing to release data from his county on race in capital cases. He was ultimately persuaded but only after much cajoling. Some public officials just don’t want to talk about facts in the death penalty debate.

The race of the victim may play an even greater role in deciding who lives and who dies. Homicide victims are white in about 50 percent cases. But since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the victims were white in 76 percent of cases that ended in execution.

There are many reasons why capital punishment is slowly being swept into the dustbin of history. Since 2007, six states have repealed their death penalty statutes, bringing the total of non-death states to 18. In 2014, only seven states carried out executions, and 80 percent of those were in three states. Governor Wolf did the right thing in bringing a halt to the machinery of death, and he used the right word to describe it- unjust.

To learn more about the debate over Pennsylvania’s moratorium on executions, check out the discussion on WITF-FM’s Smart Talk, which featured Spero Lappas, who is a member of the ACLU of PA’s South Central Chapter board, a retired criminal defense attorney, and former cooperating counsel with ACLU-PA.

Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is the former chair of the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

This blog post is part of a series for Black History Month.