The ACLU of Southern California today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Pasadena on behalf of several community activists challenging a new ordinance restricting the distribution of handbills, leaflets, fliers and other written material to businesses and residences.
In June, the Pasadena City Council adopted the ordinance as an amendment to its anti-littering law. The handbill ordinance makes it a crime to distribute "unsolicited written material" to businesses or residences where the owners have listed themselves on a "refusal register" at City Hall or have posted a "No Solicitation" sign on or near the entrance or front door. The law also prohibits distributing unsolicited material to businesses or residences that "reasonably appear to be vacant" or to any location other than at the "doorknob or doorstep."
Lorna Moore, an environmental activist and one of the plaintiffs, said, "If this ordinance had been in effect two years ago when a group of us opposed the widening of a nearby residential street or recently when we objected to the 710 Freeway, our voice would not have been heard." She added that "this ordinance would have made it a crime for 61 volunteers to hand-deliver 15,000 educational pamphlets throughout Pasadena, without first paying a fee and cross-checking everything with City Hall."
The ACLU lawsuit claims that the handbill ordinance violates the First Amendment and the California constitution since it imposes unwarranted burdens on individuals and groups who want to distribute political, religious, environmental or other literature but cannot afford expensive direct mail campaigns or radio and television advertising.
"Throughout American history, handbills and pamphlets distributed door-to-door have been a vital means of political expression protected by the First Amendment," stated Stephen Rohde, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU, who prepared the lawsuit. "Citizens who want to communicate with their neighbors on matters of local or national interest should not have obstacles put in their way," Rohde said.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Lorna Moore, the founder and chairperson of Eminent Reclaim; Marvin Schachter, chair of the Senior Advocacy Council of Pasadena; Ralph McKnight, President of the Democratic Club of Pasadena Foothills and Margaret Belton, a community activist.
Rohde points out that under the ordinance the owner of a multiple dwelling could list the entire building on the "refusal registry" and thereby prevent all of the tenants from receiving notices on rent control or other issues of general concern. Furthermore, since the ordinance exempts notices or other written material distributed by persons employed by or acting at the behest of the City, state of California or the federal government, the lawsuit contends that opponents of the government, who are subject to the new restrictions, are being discriminated against.
The lawsuit seeks to enjoin the handbill ordinance and asks for a declaratory judgment finding that the ordinance violates the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of association and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
On August 25th, Garden State Newspapers, Inc., owner of the Pasadena Star-News and The Star Newspapers, filed suit challenging the handbill ordinance in United States Federal Court.
In addition to Rohde, the plaintiffs are represented by Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU of Southern California, and David R. Fertig, of Pasadena.