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Signature-gatherers challenge park ban
Seattle Times staff reporter
A group hustling to get petitions ready for a November ballot initiative that would deny benefits to illegal immigrants is crying foul, saying rangers at Lake Sammamish State Park ordered one of its petitioners to stop collecting names at a recent public event.
Attorneys for the group, Protect Washington Now, complained in a letter to the State Parks and Recreation Commission that the rangers violated the woman's First Amendment rights.
The June 11 incident, during the Tastin' and Racin' festival at Lake Sammamish, came as the group was making a last-minute push to beat the July 7 signature-filing deadline for initiatives. Rangers told the woman she would be cited for solicitation if she continued collecting names.
John Johns, assistant regional manager with the parks commission, said the state has always believed that signature gathering amounts to solicitation, which is disallowed in state parks.
Now, though, the commission is taking another look at that position and has asked the state attorney general to review the appropriateness of the signature-gathering ban.
"Maybe we were in error," Johns said. "If we're wrong, it needs to be corrected."
In a state where voter initiatives are an increasingly popular way to get laws passed, the incident focuses attention on inconsistencies that exist among agencies that oversee parks and other venues about where and how signatures may be gathered.
Signature gathering is a free-speech right protected by the U.S. and state constitutions and upheld in any number of federal and state Supreme Court rulings.
Aaron Caplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said that if a location is considered a public forum — such as sidewalks, town halls and parks — signature gatherers are entitled to access. Operators of the property may restrict the time, place and manner of an activity — but they can't deny it, Caplan said.
"There are plenty of U.S. Supreme Court opinions that say parks are traditional public forums," Caplan said. "And even if the government would prefer to restrict people, it's too bad. There's no way you can say gathering signatures is not free speech."
Bob Baker, who heads the group, called public parks "the ultimate First Amendment venue."
"We're pushing this issue to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
The Lake Sammamish rangers used a provision of the Washington Administrative Code to stop Protect Washington Now's signature gathering. That provision prohibits — but does not define — solicitation.
In his letter to the parks commission, Protect Washington Now's Olympia attorney, Gary Preble, says "the clear meaning of the language concerns commercial solicitation ... not the participation of citizens in (a right) reserved to the people."
While state park officials say they have always restricted access, the city of Seattle says it allows signature gatherers in all its parks.
"We err on the side of letting people have full access," said Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesman Dewey Potter.
But that's not to say the city's policy is consistently carried out. Roy Ruffino, whose Lacey company manages initiative campaigns, including some in the past sponsored by Tim Eyman, said he has a Seattle police officer on video tape shooing him from Alki Beach.
Ruffino said he also was once told he could not collect signatures at highway rest stops, but when he pressed the issue was told he could.
"It's hard to get everybody on the same page," he said. "It's very sporadic."
Confusion about what is and isn't allowed has led to restrictions in an array of other venues — including on some college campuses, outside public ballparks, at highway rest stops and public restrooms, petition backers say.
A Washington Supreme Court ruling gave petitioners access to private properties that have a tradition of public access, such as shopping malls and private colleges. Additionally, stand-alone stores such as Wal-Mart and Safeway, which allow other groups, such as Girl Scouts, onto their property, are required to provide the same access to petition backers.
Post offices have been tricky. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the post office is not a public forum and had a right to regulate activity on its property. Some allow signature gatherers on the sidewalk outside their offices, while others don't.
While some citizens don't mind being approached to sign a petition, others see it as a nuisance.
"It's like telemarketers calling," said Johns of the parks commission. "Park visitors come to the park to relax, not be pestered by someone selling them something."
Ruffino is unmoved. "We may intrude on some people's rest and relaxation, but our being there gives the ones who want to sign an opportunity they may not otherwise have."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company