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Will petitions be allowed on library property?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Since 2018 began, two individuals with IndyAustin who were gathering signatures for a CodeNEXT petition outside of Austin public libraries have been cited with criminal trespass warnings. Those citations have been rescinded as the city works to clarify their position on the matter.

In response to the first citation, on Feb. 19, attorneys Bill Aleshire, Bill Bunch and Fred Lewis issued a cease and desist warning to the city of Austin, where they argued that preventing citizens to petition interferes with their right to free speech.

Their letter did not appear to make waves until March 9, two days after Lucas Burdick was issued a citation. That day the city lifted its ban on petitioning, allowing petitioners to solicit signatures on library grounds in a non-disruptive manner until the Library Commission considered the issue at its March 26 meeting.

However, at the March 26 meeting of the Library Commission, the path forward remained inconclusive. The Library Commission decided to defer to Austin Public Library Director Roosevelt Weeks and the city’s Law Department to see what solution they could create. After that, “it will be something to throw darts at, frankly,” said Chair Chad Williams.

In the meantime, citizens and commissioners had plenty of input as to the approach that the solution should take. “We can’t allow departments of our government to put rules in place to prevent that petitioning,” said Jeff Jack, the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. He likened this restriction to the Stamp Act, a 1765 tax by Britain, which “led the colonies to rebel.”

Traditionally, city parks and sidewalks are designated spaces where citizens can petition, canvass and protest without having to obtain permits or special permission to be on the premises. City libraries are public buildings; however, they have not been designated as public forums “because they are for obtaining and receiving information,” explained Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter. According to Carter, this designation arose in 2015 from issues associated with Occupy Austin, so according to the current Library Use Rules, citizens are limited to petitioning on the sidewalks that surround a library.

Commissioner Roxanne Bogucka was troubled that a public city library did not fit into the narrow definition of a public forum. “I’m having a hard time getting my head around that because ‘city’ and ‘public’ seem to me to say that,” she said.

Weeks noted that despite the public perception that the city’s limitation on petitioning has created, “civic engagement is very important to the library. Absolutely.” He noted that with the revision of the Library Use Rules, the library is looking for a way to allow petitioning and free speech that is “conducive for everyone being able to share their views without being disruptive to our customers.”

He further explained that in order to alter the Library Use Rules and the City Rules for Public Use of City Properties, there has to be an equitable solution for every situation.

Williams agreed, noting that due to the fact that library buildings are not the same distance from sidewalks on the property, “The current policy seems unequally enforceable.”

In exasperation, Commissioner Wendy Price Todd said, “I’m getting increasingly agitated about this issue.” She argued that by its nature, petitioning is not as disruptive as protests or large-scale demonstrations and as such should not be put under the same restrictions. In particular, she was worried about how putting further limitations on petitioning would affect democracy.

Despite having strong opinions on the matter, the Library Commission decided to wait for a draft recommendation at its next meeting for how to address citizens’ right to petition on library property.

Williams cautioned, “If you’re going to err, err on the side of freedom.”

Weeks did note that the majority of urban public libraries in the United States do ban petitioning on library property.

Photo by Mikerussell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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