DACONO— Petition circulators across the state continue to feel pressure from local and county governments attempting to curtail their ability to gather signatures for ballot measures. Actions that are more likely than not in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The growing instances of circulators being pressured to leave or told they cannot circulate ballot issues are causing the phones in Denver-based attorney David Lane’s office to ring off the hook.
Lane, who is considered one of top First Amendment attorneys in the country, told Complete Colorado there is no question the push back against petitioners is unconstitutional.
Lane is currently representing the Independence Institute*, individual petition circulators, and other interested parties in a case against the City of Greeley and the Greeley Police Department for telling circulators at the Greeley Stampede earlier this month they could not circulate petitions except for inside a prescribed “free speech zone.”
Just this week, Lesley Hollywood, the registered agent for the We Care For Weld County Issue Committee had two of her petitioners told they could not be on Weld County property, where they were circulating a recall petition against Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer.
According to Hollywood, Austin Harper and Patrick McClintock were gathering signatures at the southwest Weld County offices in Longmont when they were told by Weld County Sheriff’s Office deputies they could not be on County property per county code prohibiting “solicitors.”
That position has since been clarified by Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams who notified his undersheriff, others in his department and all elected officials in Weld County that he will not be arresting or even engaging with anyone trying to petition for a redress of government.
“There are plenty of case rulings over the years that say solicitation and loitering ordinances are not constitutionally sound,” Reams said. “Weld County’s code fits into that category.”
Reams said his deputies have been told to tell circulators what the county’s code is, but if circulators don’t comply, they are not allowed to take any further action.
“I am an elected official,” Reams said. “I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and I take that seriously. If what we’re doing doesn’t line up with that, that is a serious offense against me.”
It happened to Harper and McClintock again the next day, only this time in Dacono, where they were canvasing door-to-door, and this time they video recorded the interaction with a Dacono police officer.
The officer told the men they would need to apply for a permit with the town before they could continue circulating, but David Lane said that simply is not true, and he’s preparing to prove his point.
“We are meeting with a lot of these circulators and we will be going to federal court in the near future,” Lane said. “When they say you need a permit to circulate a petition door-to-door, I will let a federal judge tell them ‘no you don’t.’”
Dacono Police Chief Brian Scaggs also clarified the ordinance in Dacono and promised to make sure his officers were not impeding with circulators seeking signatures for ballot measures.
Scaggs said the town has problems with solicitors more often in the summer months when out of state businesses pay people to peddle their goods, and the harsh Colorado storms bring out even more solicitors looking to secure a quick roofing job.
“This isn’t the same thing, however,” Scaggs said. “If in fact that is all they were doing, it does not really apply to our ordinance. They won’t have that problem. I’ll take care of that.”
Scaggs said he would let his officers know that if they are called out on the complaint of a solicitor, if they are circulating petitions and not attempting to sell anything, his officers should not engage.
Lane said even in the case of a “no solicitation” sign on a door, petitioners still have a right to ring the doorbell.
“If they say ‘go away,’ then you go away,” Lane said. “You are not committing a crime by ringing their door bell.”
Lane also said that petitioners do not need to show an identification to police.
“The only time anybody has to show an ID to a cop is if the cop has reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime,” he said. “And circulating a petition is not reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime. I’ll let a federal judge tell them that also.”
According to Hollywood, she plans to be in Erie from 9 to noon Saturday at Coal Miner’s Park collecting signatures. Only time will tell if Erie will add its name to the growing list of communities trying to suppress free speech, she said.
Although the ongoing roadblocks only causes her to question who’s really giving the directive to stifle her attempt, she said, it also strengthens her resolve to get the required number of signatures to place the recall on the November ballot.
“A citizen led recall of an elected official is the epitome of petitioning the government for a redress of grievances as is clearly stated in the First Amendment,” Hollywood said. “To have two different law enforcement entities interrupt this constitutionally protected process two days in a row is not only frustrating while we’re limited on time, but incredibly alarming that this is happening in my own backyard. Where are these orders coming from? I’d like to know.”
*Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute.