Civil Liberties

Post No Petitions


Since 1998, the U.S. Postal Service has banned collecting signatures for "petitions, polls, or surveys" on its property, with violators subject to a $50 fine and up to 30 days in jail. Twenty-five plaintiffs are now challenging this policy in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., arguing that it violates their First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

On its face, the prohibition is overly restrictive. The postal service argues the ban is merely a way of avoiding disturbances on its property, but the policy outlaws even the most peaceful and nondisruptive petitioning. The ban isn't content-neutral either, since voter registration drives are explicitly allowed under the new regulations.

While postal spokespeople have refused to comment on the ongoing litigation, the service's motion for summary judgment argues that its operation is more a business than a government entity, a popular postal service trope when it's faced with angry citizens. The plaintiffs say that's nonsense, quoting in their suit the U.S. Code's definition of the post office as "a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress." All the Bugs Bunny collectible stamps in the world won't change the postal service's status as a branch of government subject to First Amendment requirements, they argue, and neither will the lack of direct congressional appropriations to support postal operations.

The plaintiffs also note that they filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out the reasoning behind the postal service's abrupt change of policy in 1998. (Until then, post offices had been traditional petitioning spots.) The documents they received "contain absolutely no findings or information regarding any disruptions of postal business caused by signature gathering activities."