Seattle suburb passes law curbing door-to-door solicitation

Saturday, March 18, 2000

An affluent suburb of Seattle has placed severe restrictions on door-to-door soliciting, prompting concern from civil libertarians who say the new ordinance violates free-speech rights.

The Medina city council recently approved a new law that requires all canvassers to apply for a city license, which can only be obtained by submitting to “a stringent criminal background check.” They must also agree to wear a photo I.D. badge.

American Civil Liberties Union officials say the law, which was enacted last month, allows unconstitutional restrictions on speech and other freedoms. The ordinance is to go into effect April 17. Medina city officials argue that solicitors are not limited in their speech and that the ordinance does not discriminate among groups. The law, they say, will be applied identically and fairly to salespeople, charities, and political and religious groups who wish to canvass the upscale suburb, which is home to Bill Gates.

City officials agree that even schoolchildren selling Girl Scout cookies or band candy would fall under the ruling. They dismiss this point, however, by saying that children tend to solicit homes of people they know.

Tina Johnson, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the USA's Totem Council, which serves northwest Washington, said members of her group — children and adults — would comply with the law.

“The parents and adults going with the children will have to agree to a background check,” she said.

Jerry Sheehan, ACLU of Washington legislative director, says Medina's new law is unconstitutional.

“You are interfering with the freedom of both parties, not just the solicitor,” said Sheehan, and are thus “clearly hindering civil rights.”

Sheehan says the new law permits “governmental interference in speech between private parties” that could set a dangerous precedent that could diminish other rights. Even the required nametags pose a problem, he contends, because “you have the right to remain anonymous in your political speech.” He cited the 1995 Supreme Court decision, McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which upheld the right to anonymity in political literature.

Medina City Manager Doug Schulze says he does not believe the law infringes on free speech. He says the required I.D. tags are intended “to protect the safety and welfare of our residents.” He also claims that a precedent for this type of ordinance has already been set by a community in Pennsylvania.

Schulze said the city was not trying to prevent solicitation, but to restrict it. One of those restrictions had limited solicitation to 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. After a complaint by the ACLU that the restriction of hours was unconstitutional, the city extended the hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sheehan says the government should not interfere with an exchange of speech between private parties.

“There is no law in Medina that prevents anyone from posting a 'No Soliciting' sign,” Sheehan said. That option, he added, would preserve the rights of solicitors and city residents.

He would not comment on whether the ACLU would challenge the new law in court, but he said his group was “in the process of analyzing case law.”

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