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):
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:
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.