U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour has issued a permanent injunction barring enforcement of a City of Medina law which required people to apply for a license from town officials and submit to a police background check in order to exercise their free speech rights. Judge Coughenour approved a stipulated final judgment settling a lawsuit challenging the law filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. As part of the settlement, Medina agreed to repeal the licensing and background check provisions of the law, and to pay $22,500 in attorney's fees and costs.
The ACLU filed suit to block the law in October, 2000 on behalf of Peace Action of Washington, a grassroots nonprofit organization which works for peace causes, and United States Mission, a nonprofit organization which provides housing for homeless people. Cooperating attorneys Kevin Hamilton and Alice Leiner handled the case for the ACLU.
The law restricted people who wanted to distribute printed information, discuss religious or political beliefs, or seek charitable contributions virtually anywhere in Medina. In issuing the injunction, Judge Coughenour called the challenged provisions of the law "impermissibly overbroad and vague, chilling constitutionally-protected speech."
Judge John Coughenour had issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law in November, 2000.
"People who are seeking to exercise their political rights by gathering signatures for an initiative campaign shouldn't have to register with the police," said ACLU Legislative Director Jerry Sheehan. “Residents are certainly free to post 'No Soliciting' signs on their property, and municipalities may reasonably regulate solicitors, but this law went way too far,” he explained. The ACLU had attempted negotiations with the town council over a period of two years, repeatedly asking the City to amend the ordinance to meet constitutional standards.
The repealed measure was adopted in February, 2000 by the Medina City Council to regulate solicitors. However, the ordinance was written so broadly that any person who wished to "approach individuals" to "expound beliefs" in the City of Medina had to first obtain a City-issued license to do so. Would-be solicitors had to go through a burdensome application process and undergo a criminal background check. While town leaders were particularly interested in regulating activists going door-to-door, the law defined solicitor to include any person speaking, leafleting, or gathering signatures in public places.
Under both the Washington and United States constitutions, government may not put unnecessary burdens on people exercising free speech. Peace Action had planned to distribute information in Medina on the positions of candidates for federal office prior to the November election. U.S. Mission sought immediate action from the court because the holiday season is a critical time for its charitable fundraising.
Plaintiffs in the case receive no government monies and rely on raising funds by talking to people on a face-to-face basis. United States Mission is a religiously based nonprofit organization that operates transitional housing for homeless persons who participate in a self-help work program. Participants in the program conduct door-to-door solicitation as part of the organization's practice of the "Social Gospel."
Peace Action of Washington is a membership organization that focuses on issues of peace, justice, and violence reduction. The group prepares information on the voting records and positions of candidates and distributes voter guides to citizens door-to-door.
Medina's solicitation law applies to "every person who shall seek charitable contributions, seek signatures on a petition, seek to disseminate information, seek to expound beliefs, seek new members on behalf of any political, religious or charitable organization(s) or distribute written or printed materials by going from house to house, or from place to place, or by standing in a doorway, or in any other place not used by such person as permanent place of business, or by approaching individuals."