Political activists challenge post office prohibition on signature-gathering

Friday, June 9, 2000

A coalition of politically active organizations and individuals recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging a U.S. postal regulation that prohibits citizens from collecting signatures for initiative petitions on post office property.

In June 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued its new rule, which prohibits “soliciting of signatures of petitions, polls, or surveys on postal property except as otherwise authorized by Postal Service Regulations.”

The plaintiffs — including Citizens for Limited Taxation, Americans for Medical Rights, Nebraskans for Limited Terms, and U.S. Term Limits — say that the regulation limits democracy.

“Signature gathering on USPS property has long been crucial to the processes of initiative and referendum — methods of direct democratic participation which allow citizens to bypass state and local legislatures and reserve direct lawmaking power in the citizens,” the plaintiffs argue in Initiative and Referendum Institute v. United States Postal Service.

The Postal Service claims that the purpose of the regulation is to minimize disruption to postal business.

However, attorneys with the Initiative and Referendum Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union contend that the Postal Service has not established a “factual record” showing that signature gathering has created disruptions.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege: “USPS has encountered few, if any, incidents of disruptive conduct arising out of signature gathering activity.” Furthermore, the plaintiffs argue that another Postal Service regulation prohibiting obstructive or disruptive conduct is sufficient to protect the agency’s interests.

The 1998 regulation “is an unreasonable restriction on protected political speech,” the groups allege.

“The lawsuit is essential to the preservation of self-government,” said M. Dane Waters, president of Initiative and Referendum Institute, in a news release. “Citizens across the political spectrum are coming together to protect the initiative and referendum process, uphold the First Amendment, and overturn an unconstitutional and unnecessary government restriction.”

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area, noted in a news release that: “Although the Postal Service likes to think of itself as a private business, it is still a part of the United States government and subject to the First Amendment.”

John Ferguson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the prohibition “infringes on the core First Amendment right of political free speech.”

“You can’t have a democracy without confrontation,” Ferguson said. “The expression at issue in this case is absolutely necessary to the preservation of a workable democracy.”

Calls to the Department of Justice were not returned.