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Mentor-on-the-Lake can't limit group's canvassing, judge says

05/21/03

Maggi Martin
Plain Dealer Reporter

A federal judge yesterday ruled that Mentor-on-the-Lake placed unconstitutional restrictions on Ohio Citizen Action's canvassing in neighborhoods.

U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent said in his opinion that Mentor-on-the-Lake's ordinance violated the group's rights to raise funds and of free speech. Nugent ruled that the city could not enforce the ordinance and ordered a hearing to determine damages.

Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, called the decision significant and said it could have statewide ramifications in other cities that have also tried to limit the group's canvassing.

"The ruling could affect the rights of many nonprofit organizations who go door to door," Buchanan said. The group had fought similar restrictions in Seven Hills and Avon Lake in the last few years. Those cases were settled before going to federal court.

"Most cities and towns are very cooperative but occasionally we run into places that try to restrict our efforts," she said.

Ohio Citizen Action sued Mentor-on-the-Lake last May in U.S. District Court in Cleveland when the city required the group to get a license, limited its efforts to daylight hours and required members to be fingerprinted and photographed. The city argued it enacted the restrictions to prevent fraud and crime and to protect residents' privacy.

Buchanan, however, said the group had canvassed for 15 years without any restrictions until 1998, when the city suddenly determined the group was no longer a nonprofit organization, although it is considered one by the IRS.

Nugent also noted that the group was a state-recognized charity. He further said that the restrictions were too narrow. He said the city could address public safety issues in a way that did not restrict free speech and that privacy issues could be addressed by having residents put up a "No Solicitation" sign.

Mentor-on-the-Lake officials could not be reached for comment.

Ohio Citizen Action is Ohio's largest environmental organization, with 100,000 members dedicated to protecting public health and the environment, Buchanan said. The group is very interested in issues involving the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant.

She said members want to canvass lakefront neighborhoods like Mentor-on-the-Lake that could be affected by a nuclear accident at Davis-Besse.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

mmartin@plaind.com, 440-602-4782


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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