Wisconsin man challenges permit requirement for public discussions in park

Wednesday, January 27, 1999

A Wisconsin man has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Waukesha County ordinance that prevents distribution of religious and political literature in public parks. The law also prevents people from speaking in parks about those topics without first obtaining a permit.

Robert Thompson filed suit last week in a Milwaukee federal court, contending the ordinance violates First Amendment free-speech rights.

The ordinance not only prohibits public discussions on religious or political topics without a permit from the county park and planning commission but also limits the locations where such discussions can take place.

One section of the ordinance provides: “All public meetings, assemblies, entertainment, tournaments or public discussions on any subject, religious, social, political or otherwise are prohibited within the limits of any park … except with a written permit … and then only in areas designated as assembly areas by the commission.”

Another section of the ordinance says that “no person shall distribute, post, affix or display any card, handbill, sign, placard, target, banner, flag (except that of the United States) or advertisement of any kind. The word distribute includes a scattering of printed matter from aircraft.”

Last April, Thompson contacted park officials about the 1958 ordinance and inquired whether he could hand out copies of the Declaration of Independence and religious literature in the park.

After officials informed Thompson that he would first have to obtain a permit, he told park officials that the ordinance was unconstitutional. When his complaints went unheeded, he contacted Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based religious-liberty group. Thompson had heard the group's president and general counsel Mathew Staver speak in Waukesha on First Amendment rights.

Staver said he repeatedly contacted county officials about changing their policies, but received no response other than one phone call last June saying that they would look into the situation. Staver said that after he received no further response from county officials, he and Thompson filed the First Amendment federal lawsuit on Jan. 21.

“If there is one place in this country where you have First Amendment rights, it is in a public park,” Staver said. “The government simply does not have the right to license certain types of speech in a public park.”

Staver also said that the ordinance's “total ban on literature distribution in public parks is blatantly unconstitutional.”

County corporation counsel Thomas Farley told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “There are lots of statutes and ordinances all over the place that are antiquated and out of use. I'm not sure who's harmed by them being there. I guess the federal court will tell us.”