Environmentalists sue town over limits on door-to-door canvassing

Tuesday, April 20, 1999

A federal judge will refrain from ruling on the constitutionality of a Longmeadow, Mass., bylaw that limits door-to-door canvassing until the town's citizens vote next month on easing the restrictions.

The Northampton-based environmental group Clean Water Action sued the town on March 30, contending that the bylaw prohibiting door-to-door canvassing after 8 p.m. violates the group's First Amendment free-speech rights.

William C. Newman, attorney for Clean Water Action, says the measure inhibits the group's ability to communicate with citizens. “The two most important hours of canvassing are from 7 to 9 p.m., because that is when people are home and most available to speak,” he said.

“Reasonable, time, place and manner restrictions on speech are fine,” Newman said, “but restricting all canvassing after 8 p.m. is not reasonable.”

According to Newman, numerous federal courts have ruled that door-to-door canvassing is permissible until 9 p.m. “Nine o'clock p.m. appears to be the magic time for the courts,” he said.

However, David J. Martel, a Springfield-based attorney who represents the town of Longmeadow, says the bylaw does not violate the First Amendment. “In our view there is no controlling legal precedent which holds that 8 p.m. is too early a restriction on door-to-door soliciting and canvassing,” he said.

Martel said that the Longmeadow bylaw was based on a similar provision in the town of Walpole. He also said that the bylaws in both Longmeadow and Walpole had been approved by the Massachusetts Attorney General.

“We are talking about a responsible group of citizens,” Newman said, noting that the group has canvassed until 9 p.m. in Longmeadow since the mid 1980s.

Last year, however, the town changed its bylaws to prohibit canvassing after 8 p.m.

After the lawsuit, town leaders agreed to place the issue on the agenda for the town's annual meeting on May 11. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor ruled on April 7 that he would not decide the suit until after citizens voted whether to allow canvassing until 9 p.m.

Newman said that the environmental group had filed a motion asking Ponsor to reconsider his ruling, but Ponsor had not yet responded.