I enjoyed a pleasant couple hours circulating petitions in beautiful downtown Webster yesterday. Among my adventures was my first encounter all year with a government employee telling me to vacate the premises.
I was circulating in front of the Webster Post Office when a blue-shirted gentleman came out and said federal law says I can’t circulate petitions on federal property. Having covered the Rapid City Post Office’s eviction by arrest of a petitioner this spring, I told the postal employee that he was mistaken, that citizens may use the sidewalk alongside the roadway outside the post office for First Amendment activities. “We’ll see what the boss says,” the postal worker said as he headed back inside.
The boss never out to say anything, and the Webster Police drove by without even looking my way, probably because they looked at federal law 39 CFR 232.1, relevant parts of which I highlighted in my April article on this topic:
“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” [CAH, 2015.04.16].
Let’s look at the Webster Post Office building and grounds:
Reading 39 CFR 232.1 strictly, the area I’ve marked in red would appear to be off limits to petitioning, soliciting, vending, etc. Concrete apron and steps, wheelchair ramp, grassy areas—no First Amendment (although the sole danger that justifies this infringement on citizen rights, possible interference with the movement of U.S. Mail, seems less likely on those grassy patches north and south, out of the direct line of mail movement). I’ve marked in green the sidewalk adjacent to the Webster Post Office. That public right-of-way appears to be exactly the area specified by 39 CFR 232.1 as a free speech zone.
Besides, look who else was in front of the Webster Post Office engaging in what the postal worker thought was a violation of federal law:
The Watertown Public Opinion has placed a newspaper vending box on the concrete apron, right next to the P.O. steps. it is set back a few feet from the sidewalk, thus falling in what the wording of 39 CFR 232.1 induces me to mark in red. 39 CFR 232.1(h)(1) explicitly mentions the vending of newspapers as a prohibited activity on postal grounds. Either the Watertown Public Opinion is violating 39 CFR 232.1, or someone at the Post Office has designated the concrete apron as part of the public right-of-way, which would mean petitioners can collect signatures there as freely as the United Communications Corporation of Kenosha, Wisconsin, can hawk its wares.
But as I said, the boss didn’t come back out to say anything, so I guess Webster postmaster Jody Jorgenson already knows the limits to his authority to infringe on the First Amendment.
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One civilian came out of the post office and asked, not too threateningly, just what the hell I was doing. I explained that I was collecting signatures to put ballot initiatives to a vote in 2016. He proceeded to ask where I’m from, where I’m born, and whether I’ve heard of famed Webster native Brock Lesnar. I was only faintly familiar with the Lesnar name, but my interlocutor found my answers to the other question sufficiently detailed to trust me and sign the petitions. He said he’d heard about shady petitioners in the news and about how folks should ask petitioners questions before signing anything.
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A Webster woman told me she’d encountered a circulator at the big Webster Pumpkinfest a couple weekends ago. She wasn’t sure which petitions the man was carrying, because he couldn’t provide her with the legally required attorney general’s explanation (see SDCL 2-1-1.1 and SDCL 2-1-1.2). When she asked to read the petition itself, he told her there wasn’t time for her to read it and that she ought to just sign it. She walked away from that shady circulator. She signed my petitions yesterday.
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One man couldn’t give me his signature because he’s not registered to vote. “I’m a felon,” he said. I asked if he’d finished his sentence, probation and all. He said yes, his infractions happened in another state a long time ago. He was under the impression, however, that a felony conviction bans one from voting for life. I said I would defer to his obviously more extensive experience with the criminal justice system, but I checked the Secretary of State’s website and found this page explaining South Dakota’s voting laws for felons. According to SOS Krebs, if a felon has finished his or her sentence, that felon can register to vote. I gave the guy the URL on my business card and told the guy to stop by the courthouse. Maybe Day County will get one more voter this week.