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February 06, 2001


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Article published February 6, 2001

Citizen group sues Marion over curfew on canvassing


COLUMBUS - The state’s largest environmental and consumer group sued the city of Marion yesterday, accusing city officials of violating the federal Constitution by slapping a curfew and a registration fee on activists who go door to door handing out flyers and soliciting donations.

The lawsuit, filed by Ohio Citizen Action in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, says the 7 p.m. curfew and a requirement that each canvasser pay a $7.50 registration fee has hindered efforts to educate Marion residents about pollution at the River Valley Schools complex. "What is the city of Marion afraid of?" said Simona Vaclavikova, program director at Citizen Action’s office in Columbus.

Citizen Action said that in early 1999, Marion city hall began to enforce a 7 p.m. curfew, as controversy grew over the River Valley middle and high schools.

The schools were built in 1962 on 78 acres where the military used to burn or bury tons of highly toxic chemicals.

Canvassers for Citizen Action have gone door to door in the neighborhoods around the school complex, but it is not within Marion’s city limits.

The River Valley school district has signed an agreement with the state and federal governments to build new schools, but they won’t open until 2003.

Citizen Action has called for the students to be relocated immediately and has criticized Governor Taft and state regulators for their handling of an environmental investigation.

Yesterday, Citizen Action officials stopped short of directly accusing Marion officials of trying to squelch attention about the River Valley schools controversy.

"It is very interesting that it started in 1999, when we never had problems before," said Ms. Vaclavikova. "People can draw their own links."

Marion Mayor Jack Kellogg declined comment yesterday. He referred questions to the city’s law director, Mark Russell, who did not return a message seeking comment.

The lawsuit asks U.S. District Court Judge David Katz of Toledo for injunctions to stop Marion from enforcing a 30-year-old ordinance against Citizen Action, which the group said is aimed at "commercial enterprises."

The ordinance defines a "solicitor, canvasser, or peddler" as the "selling, taking or attempting to take orders for purchases of goods, wares and merchandise, services or tangible personal property of any nature whatsoever."

The suit says Citizen Action canvassed in Marion for several years before 1999 until 9 p.m. and without charge. The group submitted a list of canvassers to the police department before going door to door, Ms. Vaclavikova said.

In early 1999, Marion city officials informed Citizen Action that it would begin to enforce a 7 p.m. curfew against the group - unless it agreed not to solicit donations.

Attorneys for Citizen Action cited several federal court decisions declaring that curfews are unconstitutional if they halt canvassing for political or civic purposes by 9 p.m.

"It is clear that Marion must show either a convincing need for early curfews or the existence of meaningful alternatives," wrote Edward Icove, a Cleveland attorney representing Citizen Action. "Marion cannot meet this heavy constitutional burden of proof."

An affidavit from Sandy Buchanan, Citizen Action’s executive director, says the group has tested alternatives to door-to-door canvassing, such as direct mail. However, "None of them pay their own way," the affidavit says. Ms. Buchanan said Citizen Action does not accept Marion’s argument that some citizens would be "disturbed" if canvassing is allowed until 9 p.m.

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