The public hearing in Aurora City Council chambers [Photo by Matt Yonke]
I have a cautionary tale today about the need for average citizens like you and me to keep tabs on what our local governments are doing.
We first became aware of that need in the summer of 2007 here in Aurora, Illinois when Planned Parenthood snuck the largest abortion clinic in the country into our town right under the nose of our city government without so much as a word to the public.
Yesterday, an e-mail update alerted our office to a public hearing on a proposed change to the city of Aurora’s peddling ordinance. Cities make changes to their codes all the time to deal with new problems, and on the surface it looked like this change was a simple response to the problem of unsolicited newspapers and fliers being left on people’s lawns, porches and doors. But there was a lot more than meets the eye going on in this ordinance. Be sure to read past the break for video of Eric Scheidler’s remarks!
Ordinance a Threat to Free Speech
Aurora Corporation Counsel Alayne Weingartz [Photo by Matt Yonke]
On further inspection, it became clear that the ordinance, drafted by the city’s Corporation Counsel Alayne Weingartz, did more than restrict advertising and unwanted newspapers and circulars—it restricts “charitable solicitation campaigns, distribution, canvassing, peddling or soliciting of any kind.”
The proposed changes say that anyone distributing “any written material regardless of content” would have to apply for a permit 30 days in advance of their distribution or pay a $150 fine to the city if you don’t. When it comes to advertising and the like that may be one thing, but when it comes to free speech, it’s quite another!
When Planned Parenthood came to town, the Pro-Life Action League canvassed the entire surrounding neighborhood with fliers explaining why we opposed Planned Parenthood and what citizens could do to stop them. If we had had to wait 30 days before being allowed to do that, Planned Parenthood would have already opened and there would be nothing to do about it!
Furthermore, the idea that citizens should be forced to petition the government for the right to express themselves, and to be charged for it, squarely contradicts the 1st Amendment and its guarantees of freedom of expression.
As Justice John Paul Stevens put it in the majority opinion in the 2002 case of Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton:
It is offensive not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society, that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so.
Activists, Newspapers Unite to Oppose Ordinance
Eric Scheidler Addresses the Aurora, IL Public Hearing
League Executive Director Eric Scheidler addressed the City Council quoting Stevens and pointing out the absurdity of the proposed ordinance on a number of levels. You can hear Eric’s remarks in full in the video above. Eric noted that it would preclude children from advertising for things like babysitting services or posting fliers searching for a lost kitten without petitioning the government 30 days in advance or paying $150!
Eric also pointed out that the City of Aurora just settled a lawsuit with Fox Valley Families Against Planned Parenthood for violating pro-lifers’ 1st Amendment rights. He wondered whether passing legislation that would infringe on 1st Amendment rights was really what the council wanted to be doing at this sensitive moment.
Aside from Eric, others speaking against the ordinance included a Hispanic activist who wondered about the effect it would have on voting drives, an African-American community activist who bemoaned the loss of a key form of neighborhood communication, and representatives of two major newspapers who brought out lawyers to let the council know they were serious.
It was an interesting “small world” moment when we realized that the lawyer representing the Chicago Tribune was actually from Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, the same firm defending Planned Parenthood in the Scheidler v. Trombley libel case that stemmed from the aforementioned 2007 events in Aurora!
Future of Ordinance Uncertain
Because of a conflicting city event, the hearing will be continued at a later time, but in any case the City Council heard major opposition to this unconstitutional ordinance. If it makes it to the City Council for a vote, they will hear even more. But if it weren’t for the vigilant eye we keep on the city, the ordinance could have become law without our ever having heard about it.
Nobody will keep an eye on your city government for you. Find their webpage, read the agendas for their meetings and ask questions about anything that appears even remotely fishy—your freedom of speech could depend upon it.