Press "Enter" to skip to content

Main Street Square Pushes Rapid City Petitioners off the Sidewalk; Ordinance and Court Disapprove

Main Street Square is a wonderful addition to downtown Rapid City. Alas, the non-profit that manages Main Street Square doesn’t like the First Amendment.

Seth Tupper reports that on September 26, during the Great Downtown Pumpkin Festival, Main Street Square staff evicted two groups of petitioners from the square. One group, seeking signatures to place New Approach South Dakota’s medical marijuana initiative on the 2016 ballot, had permission from a friendly booth-holder to collect signatures, but Main Street Square, Inc. said no way:

At about 2 p.m., a member of the Main Street Square staff asked the group to leave. Albonico acknowledged the group had piggybacked on a friend’s registered booth, and the friend hadn’t mentioned petition circulation on the booth application. That was the reason given for the eviction [Seth Tupper, “Politics Punted from the Square,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.10.04].

Now if the booth was within an area that had been closed off to the general public and could only be accessed by paying admission, Main Street Square, Inc., might have grounds for its anti-petition action. But the non-profit went further:

About an hour later, another one of the group’s circulators was chased away from the northeast corner of Sixth and Main streets, at the periphery of the event. That circulator thought he had permission to stand there since it wasn’t within the square itself, but Main Street Square staff said it was within the event boundaries and off-limits to him [Tupper, 2015.10.04].

Whoa, horse! Now petitioners are on the sidewalk, the public right-of-way, where lots of non-event-going Rapid Citians and visitors are strolling along, minding their own business. Rapid City Ordinance 12.12.020 says that as long as a person isn’t obstructing movement or getting nasty with passersby, there’s no foul to standing on a public right-of-way and asking for petition signatures, or, for that matter, engaging in any other First Amendment activity, like praying, humming, or standing silently and watching people go by. Even if a petitioner draws a possibly obstructive crowd, Ordinance 12.12.020 says “No person shall be deemed to have violated this section solely because of a gathering of persons to hear him or her speak or otherwise communicate or solely because of being a member of the gathering.” And the only entity clearly authorized by this ordinance to evict citizens from a public right-of-way is the police, not any other corporate entity.

Main Street Square, Inc’s own policies appear to recognize that they lack jurisdiction over public rights-of-way:

The general public will not be allowed into the rented area by use of signs and/or fencing. The interactive fountains, restrooms, parts of the alleyway, sidewalks, street corners, and area immediately in front of businesses neighboring Main Street Square will not be available for rent [Main Street Square, Inc., Event Policies, updated 2015.01.07, downloaded 2015.10.05].

Tupper does good work finding legal precedent that backs my interpretation. In 2006, U.S. Judge Richard Kopf said that Nebraska officials could not ban petition circulation from public property.

The belligerent and bolting circulators I met as the Pumpkin Festival closed up were working the corner in front of Prairie Edge, across the street from the square. Rapid City police apparently think that letting petitioners work the west side of the street but not the east is sufficient to escape a Kopf ruling:

Main Street Square’s total ban is based on police guidance. Mark Eisenbraun, special operations lieutenant for the Rapid City Police Department, cited no specific legal basis for the guidance but said Main Street Square is “authorized to set reasonable rules and guidelines for behavior of the attendees.” He said the petitioners last Saturday were given the opportunity to gather signatures across the street from the event.

While I’m sure circulators appreciate the accommodation, the northeast corner of the intersection is still public right-of-way. Neither Main Street Square Inc. nor the cops appear to have had any ordinancial grounds for evicting petitioners from that spot.

What’s really at stake here is citizens’ access to their neighbors in a public square already far too diminished by corporate America. So says one petition expert cited by Tupper:

Shenanigans aside, [C.A.] Heidelberger, an Aberdeen resident who is carrying multiple petitions himself, said he views the total Main Street Square ban on petitioning as “questionable.”

“It’s really hard to find a public space where we’re allowed to be anymore,” he said [Tupper, 2015.10.04].

When we can’t go to Walmart or Kesslers or most of the other corporate-held places to petition, those dwindling public spaces where we can engage our neighbors in honest, face-to-face civic conversation become all the more precious. We petition circulators must respect our neighbors, not be pushy, and not interfere with the pleasant civic events that others are staging for the public’s general enjoyment. We must respect each other’s rights and not engage in the sleazy petition-blocking tactics that out-of-state mercenaries have brought to our streets.

But public officials must also respect us petition circulators, fellow citizens who own the sidewalks and streets and are working hard to meet our neighbors and give them a chance to exercise their democratic rights. The sidewalk is a public forum, and no corporation, non-profit or otherwise, can take that forum away from the public.

6 Comments

  1. Rorschach 2015-10-05

    There’s really a judge in Nebraska named Richard Head?

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-05

    All right, German jokers, settle down… and notice that the judge made the right call.

  3. Curt 2015-10-05

    I’ve met that guy. I didn’t know he was a judge.

  4. barry freed 2015-10-05

    The “City owned” Civic Center has the same no petition policy. They say because it is leased, they can deny the 1st Amendment. In today’s RC Journal, it’s the City not the lessor, who will be paying the lion’s share of the settlement for the lessor’s illegal behaviour. Publicly built, publicly maintained/patroled, and profited privately.
    When the CC or Main Street Square arrests a “belligerent” petitioner, we will earn another settlement to pay. It will make speech money, instead of vice versa.

  5. jerry 2015-10-05

    I see the city of Rapid City got into the taxpayers wallets for about $280,000.00 in its fight with a pizza man. These guys can be beaten so now would be the time to challenge them on their blatant rights violations. When the taxpayers realize the frivolous way in which cities like Rapid City and counties like Jackson County have no regard for the people they serve, or their rights, they may change the seating arrangements around the table.

  6. leslie 2015-10-05

    here is another 1st Amend case:

    Ultimately, the Kansas legislature and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback repealed the standards mandating that 20 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources, making the standards voluntary this year after failed attempts at repeal in previous years.

    [Kochs privately paid, financed university professor’s expert” testimony worked! bastards.:):(]

    A National Campus Strategy

    The Koch brothers are well known for political activity at the national level, routinely spending large sums of money on candidates and causes. They are also known for so-called “information laundering” funneling large sums of money — often so-called “dark money” donations to nonprofit groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute — to disseminate misinformation on climate science and other topics.

    But the funding of university scientists and economists has emerged over the past few years as a key part of their political strategy as well.

    As John Hardin, director of university relations for the Koch Foundation, told NPR recently, the Kochs currently support over 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across the country.

    UK case exposes Kochs, huffpost 9.21.15

    What are Kochs doing in SF SD?? expose them here too, people!!

Comments are closed.