Thursday, May 5, 2011

ACLU & Tea Party United on Free Speech

ACLU, Tea Party unite in Northern California over free speech

By ROBIN HINDERY, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- A free-speech dispute in a Northern California city has forged an unlikely alliance between two strange political bedfellows: the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a local tea party group.

The ACLU of Northern California and the North State Tea Party Alliance are often at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but they have come together in their opposition to new restrictions on leafleting in front of the library in Redding.

The policy requires reservations for leafleting at the library and restricts the activity to about 10 percent of the main entrance. It also prohibits pamphleteers from approaching patrons or placing materials on car windshields in the library parking lot.

The two groups filed parallel lawsuits last week claiming the new regulations are unconstitutional. Shasta County Superior Court Judge Monica Marlow on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the Outdoor Public Forum Policy, which was approved last month by the Redding city council.

The plaintiffs acknowledge that the two groups are unexpected allies, but say free speech is an issue that unites people of all political stripes.

"We have differences of opinion, but on this issue we agree," said Don Yost, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit and chair of the organization's Shasta-Tehama-Trinity chapter. "First Amendment freedoms aren't just for people you agree with."

Tim Pappas, the attorney for the North State Tea Party Alliance, which includes eight or nine smaller tea party organizations in the region, said the two groups have found humor in the public's and the media's surprised reaction to their partnership.

"We kind of laugh and talk about how we don't see eye-to-eye on every issue," said Pappas, who also serves as assistant public defender for Shasta County. "But the issues that we do see eye-to-eye on make us absolute, 100 percent partners."

The collaboration has expanded outside the courtroom. Yost was invited to discuss the ACLU's efforts to protect free speech at a recent rally of about 150 tea party activists in Redding -- an experience he described as "very pleasant."

The lawsuits allege Redding is violating its citizens' constitutional right to free speech and free assembly in a publicly owned space.
The library, which receives about 20,000 visitors each month, is "a real cultural cornerstone of the community, a central place in Redding where people come to receive and exchange ideas," said Linda Lye, staff attorney for the San Francisco-based ACLU of Northern California.

The next hearing is scheduled for June 13.

Redding city attorney Rick Duvernay, who drafted the leafleting policy, said the final ruling will hinge on whether the judge believes the library is a traditional public forum. If so, the new restrictions would have to withstand the highest level of free-speech protection guaranteed by law.

Supporters of the policy believe the library is a limited public forum, said Duvernay, whose office is representing the defendants in the lawsuits. Both suits name the city of Redding and its city council, but ACLU also names the county's public libraries director, Jan Erickson, while the tea party suit includes city manager Kurt Starman.

"They have the opinion that the library is a quiet place where people come to get information, not necessarily a place where First Amendment activities are practiced, where ideas are pushed upon them," Duvernay said.

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