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Free Speech

Court Strikes Down Arkansas Town Limit on Signature Gathering at Town Festival

The Town of Rose Bud restriction appears aimed at a particular proposed constitutional amendment, which would "require all schools receiving public funds to meet identical standards and would require universal access to pre-K education."


From Thursday's decision by Chief Judge Kristine Baker (E.D. Ark.) in For AR Kids v. Town of Rose Bud (paragraph numbers omitted):

For AR Kids is a Ballot Question Committee organized under Arkansas Law in December 2023 with the purpose of placing its "Educational Rights Amendment of 2024" on the November 2024 ballot. The proposed amendment would amend Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution to, among other things, require all schools receiving public funds to meet identical standards and would require universal access to pre-K education….

You can see the text of the proposed Amendment here.

[P]laintiff challenges the Town's ordinance No. 2024-03 passed and adopted by the Town on June 17, 2024. {[The Ordinance] provides in part that "any business or religious or political entity desiring to solicit business, membership or signature for any purpose will be required to rent a booth or spot as selected by the City of Rose Bud, Arkansas, at any such event from which and only from which such solicitation activities may be conducted."} The Town seeks to enforce Ordinance No. 2024-03 at its upcoming event "Summerfest" which takes place in a public park from June 20, 2024, at 4 p.m. until June 22.

The Ordinance was first introduced at a meeting of the Town Council on June 13, 2024, after a member of the Ballot Question Committee inquired about seeking petition signatures at Summerfest.

Mayor Gorham stated at the June 13, 2024, meeting that Summerfest is happy to host the speech of political parties, but not the speech of ballot question committees because "this is a family environment, there is nothing political about this, this is not the type of place that you want to come and get bombarded and asked to sign a petition and read about it or anything like that."

Mayor Gorham clarified that the canvassers could not totally be banned under the law. He stated, "[i]t is not my belief that they should be out there, that they should be allowed to be out there, or what they're doing is right. I want that known, because what's on their ballot, I don't think 98 percent of the town agrees with, but there's nothing we can do, except vote the right people out and the right people in in November."

Plaintiff applied to rent a booth on at Summerfest on Saturday, June 22, 2024. At the hearing, the parties agreed that plaintiff could maintain the booth that it rented throughout Summerfest from June 20-22, 2024.

At the hearing, defendants agreed that Ordinance No. 2024-03 does not regulate plaintiff from seeking signatures for its petition on public rights-of-way surrounding Summerfest including on Baseball Field Road and School Road.

Defendants maintain that plaintiff is prohibited from soliciting signatures for its petition on the Town-owned property immediately outside the Summerfest entrance because it is Town-owned property….

Plaintiff has established a likelihood of success on the merits based on the record before the Court…. Plaintiff has also established the threat of irreparable harm based on the First Amendment interests involved and plaintiff's inability to collect an adequate number of signatures before the July 5, 2024, deadline. Based on the record before the Court at this stage in the proceedings, the balance of the equities favors protecting the plaintiff's First Amendment rights by granting the temporary restraining order….

The court didn't explain its First Amendment reasoning, but here is the plaintiffs' argument, which the court presumably found persuasive, at least in part. This was an ex parte emergency temporary restraining order, so the City didn't present a written argument, though its lawyer participated in the oral argument. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Dale Ellis),

Searcy attorney Don Raney, representing the city of Rose Bud, argued at Thursday's hearing that the ordinance was written only to ensure that festival-goers would have a good time and not have to deal with canvassers.

"Everybody is for freedom of speech," Raney said, "but sometimes there's a right of freedom from speech."

(Note of course that this is just an excerpt from Raney's argument; I'm afraid I don't have a full transcript that I can share.)

John C. Williams of the ACLU Foundation represents plaintiffs. Thanks to Prof. Robert Steinbuch for the pointer.