Friday, May 25, 2012

Little Rock cracks down on petitioners at Riverfest

Posted By on Fri, May 25, 2012 at 8:28 PM

MOVE ALONG, 1ST AMENDMENT NOT IN EFFECT TONIGHT: An LR police officer explains to Greg Deckelman, canvasser for the ethics initiative that signature gathering is not allowed on city streets within three or four blocks of Riverfest entrances.
  • Brian Chilson
  • MOVE ALONG, 1ST AMENDMENT NOT IN EFFECT TONIGHT: An LR police officer explains to Greg Deckelman, canvasser for the ethics initiative, that signature gathering is not allowed on city streets within three or four blocks of Riverfest entrances. Here, they are at Markham and Scott in front of Korean gate and LR Chamber of Commerce.

Little Rock government outrage of the day:

When the powers that be don't want petitions signed, petitions will not be signed.

The police force of the city of Little Rock is preventing canvassers for various initiative petitions from gathering signatures on public streets near, but outside, the entrance to gated grounds of Riverfest. David Couch, a lawyer representing the ethics petition gatherers, said police are acting on the orders of Riverfest officials.

Said Couch, "Little Rock police are taking the position that anything that's blocked off is under the control of Riverfest. Riverfest people asked them not to allow them to canvass on those localities." The effect of this is to push canvassers blocks away from entrances and the biggest concentration of people. They can encounter only a trickle of festival goers, such as at 2nd and Cumberland, rather than thousands in front of the River Market on Clinton Ave. three blocks away.

Couch said he was told by an officer, in response to a question, that if canvassers continued to gather signatures they'd be arrested for interfering with governmental operations. The officer said he'd also been asked to stop all canvassers, to get information on each of them and to ask them to stop.

Information on each canvasser? Blocking of petition gathering on an open thoroughfare? Couch thinks it blatantly unconstitutional and so do I. Couch had his encounter in front of the Arkansas Studies Center, where he noted that a street musician, mimes and a preacher were soliciting contributions and other commercial activities were underway. The only thing being prohibited was petition of government.

Couch said calls had been made to Mayor Mark Stodola, who, Couch was told, promised to correct the situation. When canvassers returned to the street, however, a police lieutenant told Couch he knew nothing of any mayoral intervention and said arrests would be made.

I suggest we arrange this: A few hundred people march down to Cumberland and Markham, get some petition forms — preferably from Regnat Populus 2012, but the gas tax, casino proposals, medical marijuana or anything else are OK — and start taking signatures. We'll be sure Brian Chilson is on hand for the photograph of citizens engaged in lawful activity, petitioning their government, being arrested, cuffed and loaded in a paddy wagon. Or maybe a quick legal action for injunctive relief. Irreparable damage to the petition effort has already been done.

I'm so mad I could scream. This city, utterly controlled by a narrow sector of the business establishment, has done it again. Spit on its citizens.

It is hard for me not to believe that this isn't related to the Chamber of Commerce's effort to stifle petitioning for the gas severance tax increase, an effort that has already produced intimidation tactics. I have no idea if communications were made, but the suspicion is hard to resist. Shut them all down, using taxpayer police, and it saves the Chamber a lot of money in sending out hired goons to do the job one by one at a mass event attended by a quarter of a million people. That's only speculation. Unless the city says the 1st Amendment does apply in Little Rock after all, I will presume the worst.

Mayor Stodola, how strong are you? Strong enough to defend the 1st Amendment?

I'll update if I'm able.

Really. Does Riverfest get to decide who walks on blocked-off streets? Because if it decides what speech is legal there, the power is the same.

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