Court Blocks Missouri Anti-Leafleting Law

A federal court has issued a preliminary injunction against the city of Desloge, Missouri barring enforcement of an anti-solicitation ordinance that I think could easily be justified as a legitimate time, space and manner restriction. The law says:

No peddler nor any other person, association, corporation or other entity shall be authorized to conduct any solicitation activities, or to occupy, use or operate in or upon any public highway, thoroughfare or street within the City of Desloge.

Violating the ordinance brings a potential penalty of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The city agreed that this ordinance prohibited “distributing handbills and leaflets,” something that is clearly protected by the First Amendment, but the scope of the ordinance is quite limited. From the ruling:

Plaintiffs planned to distribute handbills in the City on October 27, 2012, and on unspecified dates thereafter. In preparation for this solicitation activity, Ancona contacted the City and asked if he could approach individuals within stopped vehicles at the intersection of Desloge Drive and Oak Street in the City and distribute leaflets to them. Desloge Police Corporal Sean Roney advised Ancona that he could stand on the sidewalks or other areas not within the intersection to hand out his leaflets, could hand out the leaflets upon the City’s sidewalks and could also display signs on the sidewalk, but for safety and traffic purposes, could not stand within the intersection. Further, Corporal Roney advised Ancona that Plaintiffs could approach drivers and/or pedestrians in other public, private, or semiprivate areas, including public parking lots near the intersection, and that Plaintiffs also could go from door to door to distribute leaflets on private property.

I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist, but this strikes me as an entirely reasonable restriction that is, contrary to the judge’s ruling, narrowly tailored to achieve a legitimate government interest. The plaintiffs, who happen to be the KKK in this case but that is legally irrelevant, have all of the traditional public forums available to them to hand out leaflets and express their viewpoint. The only thing they can’t do is actually walk out into the street and hand them out to drivers at intersections. This seems entirely reasonable to me. The case was brought by the ACLU, which has done so much incredible work in defense of free speech rights, but I think they’re off base here. You can read the full ruling here.

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  • eric

    “any public highway, thoroughfare or street” could easily be taken to include sidewalks and pedestrian areas. That’s the way I first read it. Now from your second quote, it appears that the police are narrowly interpreting ‘highway, thoroughfare, or street’ to mean only the road surface itself. Which is great. There is a clear and obvious government interest in stopping pamphleteers from walking out onto busy streets. But I can understand the ACLU’s desire to maybe narrow the wording even more, so that its absotulely, crystal clear that a person’s ability to hand out pamphlets on sidewalks is not impacted.

  • Sounds like a reasonable law to me. And does the KKK really want to put it’s people in the middle of intersection? Seems like there’d be a lot of potential for an “accidental” hit and run.

  • slc1

    This is a serious problem in this area, particularly Arlington Co., Va., with people standing on street corners asking for donations and going out into traffic at red signals.

  • looseleaf

    Yes, having Klan members in the middle of a busy intersection just seems like it’s tempting fate. Will they be all dressed up in their little outfits? This sounds more and more like a somebody’s idea of a video game when I think about it.

  • eric —

    In this case, both sides stipulated that the law does not prohibit leafleting on a sidewalk or in any other traditional public forum and that it only blocked doing so to stopped cars at intersections. So there’s no ambiguity to clear up.

  • I have to agree with other posters who see the wording as the actual problem. While it is being narrowly interpreted now, there doesn’t seem to be anything within the wording of the law that would prohibit the city from interpreting it to include sidewalks and the like. That said, the Livonia Fire Department (or Redford, or Northville, I can’t quite recall which intersection this occurs at) does this fundraising effort every summer in which they stand in between the lanes at an intersection (on a five lane, 45 mile an hour road) selling something to drivers. That is the most terrifying fucking thing to come up on – a dude STANDING BETWEEN TWO LANES OF SPEEDING CARS. So I do dig the spirit of the law.

  • eric

    Ed @5 – if the ACLU is stipulating that it doesn’t apply to sidewalks, then I agree with you that they seem to be fighting against a perfectly reasonable time/place/manner restriction.

  • AsqJames

    Rather than prohibit any “peddler [or] other person, association, corporation or other entity” from certain types of activities on public roads, wouldn’t it be better to prohibit pedestrians from entering the roadway? Perhaps with a specific exception for pedestrians crossing directly from one side to the other.

    The problem isn’t that there are “peddlers” engaged in “solicitation activities” in a particular place, it’s that there is inherent danger when the same bit of land is used at the same time both for driving and for walking/standing.

  • John Horstman

    Umm, that’s a terrible law. It’s written so broadly as to prohibit people driving on the streets, as that could presumably constitute an “other entity” “us[ing] or operat[ing] in or upon any public highway, thoroughfare or street within the City of Desloge.” Legislators should be required to have writing degrees; words actually mean things.

    That said, the ACLU may be more worried about this kind of prohibition (especially as broad as it is) being used to selectively suppress parades or protests for which roads can be cordoned-off. Christmas parade is a go, but the gay pride parade is not – that kind of thing. Also, it really seems to imply that no goods can ever be delivered by a commercial carrier within the city limits, and CERTAINLY not in a vehicle that advertises the business (also, things like bus-side or taxi-top advertisements are pretty clearly banned). This is just a bad, bad law all the way through; it seems like the actual intent could be handled by a simple jaywalking ordinance, as AsqJames suggests.

  • The idea itself is okay, and I can see a need for it (because running around in traffic is usually a bad idea), but, but, the writing, the sentence structure of the law itself, is incredibly bad.

  • Karen Locke

    There’s at least one fire department in the rural Eastern Sierra that takes a day in the middle of the summer, on a 2-lane but major state highway, to collect for charity. They park their rigs in the “chicken” lane, but still it’s a 45 mph zone. Someday some asshole is going to blast through there at 70 mph and take out a firefighter or a donator.

  • kimberlyherbert

    Can’t they just be ticketed with obstructing traffic? That is what the sports teams that panhandle at 7 lanes E/W and 7 lanes N/s 45 mph intersection near me get ticketed for – and they are endangering minors by sending them into traffic to beg for money. (I know they get ticketed because I overheard them complaining about it at lunch. I felt like telling them I had reported it as child endangerment when I called the cops on them. )

  • grumpyoldfart

    …and that Plaintiffs also could go from door to door to distribute leaflets on private property.

    Really? How many visits per day before the resident can stop them? Or is there no limit?