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  • Marion's canvassing law challenged

    Thursday, February 8, 2001

    Holly Zachariah
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    An environmental group has sued the city of Marion, claiming its fee and curfew on door-to- door solicitation, canvassing and peddling are unconstitutional.

    Marion officials, who had not yet seen the lawsuit that was filed by Ohio Citizen Action on Monday in federal district court, this week defended the city's ordinance.

    Law Director Mark Russell said residents rely on the ordinance to ensure the legitimacy of groups that visit neighborhoods door to door to sell wares, seek donations or gather public opinion.

    Enacted in 1970, the law requires each member of such organizations to pay a one-time $7.50 registration fee to cover background checks and identification badges. The law also sets a 7 p.m. curfew on such activities.

    "Our residents are aware of this law, and they look for those badges and depend on those badges for security,'' Russell said.

    The hours, he said, protect residents' privacy.

    A constitutional lawyer from Columbus, however, said in an interview that the limits harm residents' rights. And a spokeswoman for Citizen Action said the ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of her group.

    "Studies and our great experience have shown that most citizens are home only from the hours of 6 to 9 p.m.,'' said Simona Vaclavikova, program director for the group's Columbus office. "We need to be able to talk to them during those hours.''

    Citizen Action canvassers usually operate in groups of 12 to 15 people from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., she said.

    The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would allow the group to canvass until 9 p.m., and unspecified monetary damages.

    Vaclavikova said Citizen Action went door to door in Marion without incident in 1997 and 1998 to gather support for the relocation of River Valley schools after the Ohio Department of Health found land on the campus contaminated.

    She said that in 1999, the city sent a letter to the group that listed the fee and the curfew.

    "Several times since 1999, we've tried to resolve this matter,'' Vaclavikova said. "But because the city officials are giving us a hard time, we've had no choice but to sue.''

    She said she has relied on memos circulated among national public-interest organizations for a lengthy list of cases in which groups have successfully challenged such curfews and fees.

    Susan Gellman, a constitutional lawyer and a partner in the Columbus law firm of Wolman, Genshaft & Gellman, said curfews and other limitations hurt residents as well.

    "There is an assumption by municipalities that no one wants to hear what these groups have to say,'' said Gellman, who's defended First Amendment issues for her private practice and the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "It's the First Amendment right of the people in that house. They have a right to hear this information. It's not too much to ask for them just to say, 'No, thank you,' if they aren't interested.''

    In Ohio, solicitation, canvassing and peddling laws vary greatly, said Amy Simpson, director of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, whose members regularly canvass neighborhoods.

    "There's not a lot of uniformity,'' she said. "We work with regulations as long as they are reasonable and don't become an impediment of our right to talk to citizens face to face.''

    Simpson said sunset curfews are common.

    "We choose to do our canvassing in the summer; that way, we have more time available to us,'' she said.

    Citizen Action has filed similar suits against 12 Ohio municipalities in the past 10 years, Vaclavikova said.

    Last year, it sued Cortland in Trumbull County.

    A law there banned all door-to- door sales, fund-raising and canvassing in residential neighborhoods, Cortland Mayor Melissa Long said.

    The case was settled out of court, but not before an Akron judge ordered the city to adopt a new ordinance allowing such activities from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m.

    Long said the part of the settlement that troubled her most was the $16,000 the city reimbursed Citizen Action for money the group said it lost by not being able to solicit there. She said it appears the group targets communities for the lawsuits.

    "Every community Ohio Citizen Action has sued fits a mold,'' Long said. "They are affluent bedroom communities that have substantial budgets. The group's not targeting townships that likely have the same restrictive laws because there they wouldn't (win) such a big settlement.''

    Gellman said curfews are challenged the most.

    She said she recently won a case in Stratton in Jefferson County where the Jehovah's Witnesses sued over a 5 p.m. curfew for canvassing.

    "That was ridiculous,'' Gellman said. "You have to be able to go door to door when people are home.''

    That case is being appealed.

    hzachari@dispatch.com




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