Rapid City Petitioner Arrested at Post Office; Federal Law and SCOTUS Against First Amendment

Dang. As a petitioner and avid defender of the First Amendment, I want to go to war on the United States Postal Service for kicking petitioners off their property (also known as our property) in Rapid City yesterday and having 68-year-old Roberta Helmerick arrested for persisting in her petitioning. Those Rapid City folks aren’t even carrying my statewide referendum petitions; they’re working for a referendum of the six-million-dollar, five-year opt-out that to me sounds like money desperately needed to maintain basic operations in the Rapid City Area Schools. But even if we disagree on petition goals, I believe they have the right to engage the public political conversation and seek signatures for their petitions in the public space surrounding their post office, as long as they do not impede citizens and postal employees from going about their business.

Alas, federal law disagrees with me. 39 CFR 232.1(h)(1) says “Soliciting alms and contributions, campaigning for election to any public office, collecting private debts, soliciting and vending for commercial purposes (including, but not limited to, the vending of newspapers and other publications), displaying or distributing commercial advertising, collecting signatures on petitions [emphasis mine], polls, or surveys (except as otherwise authorized by Postal Service regulations), are prohibited” on post office grounds. 39 CFR 232.1(a)(ii) says one can collect petition signatures on “sidewalks along the street frontage of postal property falling within the property lines of the Postal Service that are not physically distinguishable from adjacent municipal or other public sidewalks, and any paved areas adjacent to such sidewalks that are not physically distinguishable from such sidewalks.”

Let’s look at the overhead Google pic of the Rapid City Post Office to see the problem (click to embiggen):

Rapid City Post Office overhead view
Rapid City Post Office. Green lines show sidewalk where petitioning is legal; red lines show sidewalk where petitioning is illegal. (Adapted from Google Maps.)

Under 39 CFR 232.1, petitioners may stand on the sidewalks along the streets around the post office and solicit signatures. However, the Rapid City Post Office has a big parking lot on its west side in front of its main west entrance. Most post office visitors will come in cars, meaning they will drive through that green perimeter and park as close as the can to the doors on the west side of the building before they get out of their cars. Petitioners are thus forced to shout across the lot at people as they get out of their cars and head for the doors. Such shouting will tend to intimidate most unknowing passersby, if it can be heard at all over the traffic and wind.

In other words, by law, vehicular accommodation, and big-box urban design, the post office makes it practically impossible for petitioners to interact in a civil, neighborly fashion with most of the citizens coming to the post office.

Compare that layout to the Madison Post Office:

Madison Post Office
Madison Post Office. Green: petitioning o.k.! Red: petitioning not o.k. (Adapted from Google Maps

The Madison Post Office has no customer parking lot. Every driving customer must park on the street. Every customer must thus cross the public sidewalk (green!) to reach the walkway and steps (red) to the front door on the north side of the post office. A petitioner can thus stand on the sidewalk and have a chance to look every approaching Madison postal customer in the eye and ask a simple question: “Do you have time to sign a petition?”

If post offices are going to barricade themselves behind large parking lots, the federal government should change regulations to allow petitioners to continue to engage their fellow citizens in civil conversation in the practical front of this vital public building.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged this law in court. They lost in district court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up their appeal. So if we want to reclaim our public space at out post offices, it looks like we’ll have to talk to our Congressional delegation about rewriting 39 CFR 232.1.

And from what I’ve seen this year of our Republican leaders, they want to make petitioning harder, not easier.


21 Responses to Rapid City Petitioner Arrested at Post Office; Federal Law and SCOTUS Against First Amendment

  1. CH,

    I think this may be something based on history and the formation of the Post Office as a vital instrument of the First Amendment.

    I believe it was Franklin but possibly another of our Founding Fathers who believed the Post Office was more critical to our democracy than even a organized Military. Franklin (if it was him) asserted that private conversation communicated via mail was critical for the First Amendment. That is why it was a more serious crime to rob a mail coach than one carrying people or currency/gold.

    Additionally, the concept of the Post Office is it is a mutual agent of both the sender and the recipient of mail leading to the special laws like mail fraud.

    It would be my guess the goal of unfettered, undistrurbed access to the Post Office resulted in the list of things as they became prevalent. Both as an instrument of the First Amendment and agent of sender/recipient the Post Office is a sanctuary for anything and everything which could impede these activities and have thus taken a strict, expansive approach.

    Whether the changes in communication and commerce justify a change in the law is debated but my guess is that is the rational. Maybe we will address this when we address whether the huge subsidy is still warranted.

  2. Tonchi Weaver

    I am the chairman of the effort to refer the arbitrary tax hike. I was told that anyone has the right to collect signatures under the awning as long as they don’t impede entrance to the building and don’t approach people as they enter, only after their business is complete. It is bad form, if nothing else, to do otherwise. Our petitioners are volunteers. They are polite to the public even when the public is not polite to them – we are not there to argue the merits of the resolution, just to put it on the ballot.
    In my 35+ years as a postal employee, I have seen petitioners at the front doors regularly. This is a case of selective application of an obscure regulation; certainly a case of unequal treatment. This is just the latest device to muffle the voice of the people in this issue. There have been other attempts to sabotage this effort, but I believe the people will prevail. Thank you for pointing out the erosion of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. This rule is supposed to apply to the Press as well, but as this 69-yr-old USAF veteran was being arrested, the media was inside the building doing a story on tax day filings.

  3. Roger Cornelius

    At any given time you can see religious right groups protesting in front of the federal courthouse in Rapid City and apparently they are not subject to arrest.
    So, how is activists protesting in front of one federal building and civic minded citizens gathering petitions in front of another federal building any different?

  4. The people who were asked to leave the Post Office entryway are from the local branch of the Tea Pty seeking to refer the recently-adopted RC Schools opt-out. They are correct in stating that it has been customary in the past for individuals to be allowed to solicit petition signatures in the very location they were asked to leave. Without any direct knowledge of the situation, I wonder whether the reason they were asked to leave had anything to do with the number of petition circulators congregated near the PO entrance and/or their typically aggressive tactics. In any case, it will make it much more difficult for any of the rest of us to gather signatures at the Post Office.

  5. PlanningStudent

    Just because the Post Office failed to enforce a very clear law that prohibits gathering petitions in the past is not an excuse to not enforce it now. You can call it selective enforcement all you want but it doesn’t change the fact it is illegal. The local post office doesn’t even have the authority to let you be under the awning.

    There are so many other places to gather signatures, this shouldn’t even be an issue. If you want to have a successful petition effort move on and focus on the goal.

  6. Cranky Old Dude

    The USPS is considered to be an “independent” branch of government with eminent domain and sovereign right’s, so good luck on letting any constitutional recognition out of them.

    The main thrust of this campaign was to get the opt out on the ballot instead of it just being the usual Rubber Stamp by the tame school board.

    As a historical point of interest, some delineate the end of Capitalism and the Free Market from the destruction of Lysander Spooner’s competing, private postal system in 1851 by Congress. Sic Semper Tryrannis.

  7. Donald Pay

    I think you might have different people in charge now who interpret the regulations less liberally than before. Back in the early 1990s you could have a couple petitioners stationed on the internal sidewalks (which you have marked in red). They didn’t want more than one near each door, and you absolutely couldn’t obstruct entrance or egress. Once you cycled through a week, you had gotten about all the signatures from that location that you were going to get. I recall they tightened the interpretation of the regulation at one point, and didn’t want petitioning there. Maybe they got flak, or maybe they had a higher up come through and he squashed it, or maybe a new postmaster had a different interpretation of the regulation, or maybe it was a court case.

  8. Francis Schaffer

    Does the USPS actually own the property? Many federal buildings are rented. I would go there first.

  9. No, PlanningStudent, this needs to become the poster issue of this petition drive. The people in Rapid City are going to rise up and pound on the doors of the post offices and insist on standing in the red areas come hell, high water, or swarms of punishing locusts.

  10. Francis, the law in question applies to “all real property under the charge and control of the Postal Service….” If the intent of the law, as Troy suggests, is to protect the sanctity of the mail and avoid even the hint of impeding the movement of mail, I would assume that the preceding phrase is written to encompass any building in which the USPS is carrying out its vital duties, regardless of the ownership status of the building.

    But I’m assuming; anyone have a firmer read?

  11. Cranky, could we say Capitalism and the Free Market are enjoying some restoration with the activity of FedEx, UPS, et al.?

  12. Ah, Roger, apparently different regulations apply to different types of federal buildings. The law I’m citing above applies specifically to postal facilities. It has no impact on First Amendment activities at federal courthouse, nation parks, or any other facility run by Uncle Sam.

  13. Mr. H, could you have your petition peddlers go hang out at Mt. Rushmore? Make sure only SoDakians sign but there are surely lots of them. And get donations from the out of state libbies that are flocking through and you could even advertise and fund your campaign if you get your bills on the ballot

  14. Roger Cornelius

    Cory,
    I thought of that distinction between the post office and federal buildings after I posted my comment.

    It is still puzzling why there has to be a difference in policy and laws and I’m not holding onto that Impeding mail delivery.

  15. Indeed, one could argue that the functions going on in the courthouse are as vital as mail delivery and deserve similar protection from possible disruption.

    But should we worry so much about disruption from people speak and carrying petitions? Are people asking for signatures really going to stop citizens from going inside and buying stamps? Are postal patrons so fragile that they must be shielded from free speech?

  16. Francis Schaffer

    CAH, look at the lease agreement and applicable SD laws on petitions.

  17. barry freed

    The Civic Center (also forbids us to circulate petitions) and Post Office are examples of what we get from Privatization: they claim to be “government” when they want more money, “private” when they want to violate our Rights.

  18. mike from iowa

    Robbing the mail makes it a federal crime. Robbing people is not,even with currency involved,so robbing the mail is by definition a more serious crime. I’m guessing if people can picket on the steps of the Scotus,they should be able to collect signatures in front of any building provided they don’t totally block access to emergency vehicles like police,fire ,ambulances etc.

    Anti-abortion monsters are allowed to harass women right up to the front doors of women’s health clinics.

  19. “Grudznick” wrote:
    >“Mr. H, could you have your petition peddlers go hang out at Mt. Rushmore? Make sure only SoDakians sign but there are surely lots of them.”

    I’ve circulated a petition at Mount Rushmore. I believe I had to get some kind of permit, but they let me set up a table and approach people right in the main entrance. Unfortunately trying to find a South Dakotan was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and I packed it in after less than an hour.

  20. CH,

    While I think the attitude toward non-post office business of any type occurring has a historical basis and was likely appropriate, with the change to metered mail (even individuals can print their own stamps) and availability to drop off at multiple locations, I’m inclined to be with you that I doubt the distinction between other governmental buildings/property and postal property is worth preserving.

    Maybe there is something we don’t know or understand that warrants keeping the distinction. Just can’t imagine what it might be.

    But, in any case, there won’t be any change during this election cycle so I suggest that you go stand out by the NBP plant and get your petitions signed. :)

  21. The Constitution is superior to the CFR Statutes–Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations is the United Nations group for the New World Order-communism. God help us