Aurora, IL Nixes Law Limiting Speech Under Pressure from League

Aurora City Council 

Attorney Lance Malina defends new ordinance to the Aurora, IL City Council [Photo by Matt Yonke]

When the City Council of Aurora, Illinois gathered at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, one of the items on the agenda was an amendment to the City’s peddling and soliciting ordinance that would muzzle free speech by requiring advance notice and a permit from the City in order to distribute any kind of written material. The Pro-Life Action League was there to protect free speech.

The proposed changes flagrantly violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, as was clearly shown in the 2002 case of Watchtower Society v. Stratton where Jehovah’s Witnesses objected to an ordinance in the upstate New York village of Stratton which would have required a permit for the canvassing activities for which Jehovah’s Witnesses are so well known.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority decision in that case, in which he said the following:

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.

Surprise Legal Representative Defends Ordinance

I came to the meeting along with League Executive Director Eric Scheidler ready to speak to the council regarding the ordinance changes.

We were surprised to see that Aurora’s Corporation Counsel, attorney Alayne Weingartz, was not present at the meeting as she usually is. In her place was attorney Lance Malina from Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins, Aurora’s outside legal counsel.

When it came time for Eric and me to speak on the peddling ordinance, Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner asked if we would first allow comments from Malina to clarify what he thought were some misunderstandings about the ordinance. Malina then explained how he saw the ordinance as perfectly constitutional in that it does not require a permit for speaking or handing out literature to neighbors who receive it willingly. The only aspect of speech that would be affected would be leaving literature on the door of people who are not home.

But this act of leaving literature for someone to read at their convenience is one of the fundamental acts protected in the Watchtower v. Stratton decision: the right to anonymous speech.

League Representatives Address the Council

After Malina’s comments I delivered the Council a letter from our attorneys at the Thomas More Society stating that in their opinion the ordinance was in flagrant violation of the First and Fourteenth amendments and that, if it was to pass, a lawsuit would be filed in Federal Court “before the ink dries.” Attached to the letter was the full text of Justice Stevens’ decision in Watchtower v. Stratton. Read the full letter here [PDF].

After I read the letter, Eric Scheidler gave his remarks to the council in which he reminded them that in two previous public hearings, members of the public had spoken out against the changes because of the First Amendment implications, but the city had taken none of that into consideration in their revisions of the ordinance.

Eric said:

I understand the Council’s desire to respond to citizen’s complaints about litter from unwanted advertising circulars, which the amended ordinance is intended to remedy. But requiring citizens to obtain a permit before exercising their First Amendment rights is not the way to do it.

Justice Stevens called it “offensive.” It is also fiscally irresponsible, as it will certainly involve the City in costly litigation. Please vote NO on the amended peddling ordinance.

Council Debates Ordinance at Great Length

After his comments the council asked questions of Malina and debated the ordinance among themselves for over 30 minutes before deciding that the ordinance had serious flaws as written and needed to be sent back to the Government Operations Committee for serious revisions under the guidance of legal counsel taking the Watchtower v. Stratton case into account.

We’re happy that the ordinance did not even make it to a vote before the Council, but we’ll be keeping a vigilant eye on it as it goes through the revision process to be sure that our rights to fight abortion and everyone’s right to free speech in Aurora are not violated.

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