The Log Cabin Democrat has gotten a number of emails and letters and some online comments about high tempers and hurt feelings where petitions for a "wet" county vote are being gathered.
On May 20, election day and not long after the petition drive started, someone called police to break up a yelling match involving, to some extent, a petition gatherer at the McGee Center polling place.
Since then this newspaper has heard reports, most anonymous, that petition gatherers were being "pushy" and engaging in yelling matches. The paper has also heard that people, mostly young people, working for or with the They Win, You Lose Committee, were being "pushy" and engaging in yelling matches. The paper has also heard, and in one instance one of our reporters and our photographer claim to have seen, people taking pictures of people signing the petitions.
On Wednesday someone stole a petition gatherer’s backpack from the Starbucks coffees shop on Oak Street. It’s not clear if the thief was after the 32 pages of signatures — each with ten signatures on it — or the tablet computer and wallet that were in the backpack. Five pages of signatures were found blowing around the parking lot.
The library incident, allegedly
On Sunday afternoon there was some level of commotion outside the doors of the Faulkner County Library, according to library director Nancy Allen. She was inside at a program, she said, and by the time someone told her about it and she got to the front it was over.
Natalie Ghidotti, spokesperson for the Our Community, Our Dollars committee that’s behind the "wet" initiatives at both the state and county level, said that, as she understood it, someone was taking pictures of people signing the petitions and then took pictures of the signed pages themselves at the library on Sunday afternoon. Taking pictures, she said, made someone who’d signed uncomfortable and that led to the commotion.
The petition gatherer at the library on that day would only give his first name, Mark, on Tuesday. Mark said that while his back was turned a young man with a camera quickly leaned over and snapped three pictures of three pages of signatures that were on his table. A man who had just signed got upset, Mark said, because he felt like his privacy had been invaded, and he called the police.
There is no incident report from the library on Sunday, Conway Police Department spokesperson La Tresha Woodruff said, but CPD records show a "call for service" from the library at about 3:30 Sunday afternoon that ended with an "attempt to contact." This probably means that an officer went out to the library and couldn’t find the person who called, Woodruff said.
The First Amendment’s broad definition of "speech" protects anyone taking pictures of almost anything if they’re lawfully in a public place, but this might rise to the level of criminal harassment if the person’s conduct "alarms or seriously annoys another person and … serves no legitimate purpose" or the person "repeatedly insults, taunts or challenges another person in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response." Arkansas Code Annotated §5-71-208(a)(4), (5).
Why they take pictures
People working for the They Win, You Lose committee do take pictures, committee chairperson Mary Dillard said, as evidence that a petitioner’s table and signature sheets may have been unattended. They take pictures of the signature sheets themselves so that They Win, You Lose can know, specifically, which signatures to challenge under the law, according to Dillard.
Each part of a petition must have attached to it "the affidavit of the canvasser [signature gatherer] to the effect that … all signatures appearing on the petition part were made in the presence of the [signature gatherer][.]." Arkansas Code Annotated §7-9-108(b). An unattended signature sheet calls the truthfulness of this affidavit into question, Dillard said.
Dillard also said that she had personally seen signature gatherers "lose their cool" in confrontations with people opposed to the "wet" initiative.
Mark was gathering signatures outside the Conway revenue office on Tuesday, and a young woman was standing near his table handing out small "decline to sign" flyers from the They Win, You Lose Committee. Both were courteous, and Mark said that he’d had no problem with the young woman, who he said was being "really nice" in the way she was doing her job to promote her position.
The young woman was told about claims that some petition gatherers were being "pushy" and "not taking no for an answer." She nodded, but said she couldn’t talk to the media. She declined to give her name, but said she could say that she worked for the committee. She made a phone call and left a few minutes after we talked to her.
Goings-on at the revenue office
In the fifteen minutes or so that the newspaper watched the goings-on outside the revenue office, Mark was rebuked and lightly berated by an elderly woman who’d just talked with the young woman handing out "decline to sign" flyers about the death of a child and serious injury to his family in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Mark told this elderly woman that he didn’t want to argue with her, and he didn’t engage in an argument. Of course she did not sign. Also, a man who’s been in town for a few months and just got around to getting his Arkansas driver’s license came out of the revenue office. He ended up signing.
Free speech and the First Amendment
County Attorney David Hogue said on Tuesday that he’d been contacted by National Ballot Access, the professional signature gathering company hired by Our Community, Our Dollars, after a signature gatherer was asked to leave the library property, allegedly because of a disruption that was bothering library patrons.
The First Amendment has been consistently interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court protects "political speech" such as signature gathering and opposition to signature gathering, when it is done in a reasonable time, place and manner.
"As long as the speech is being done in a peaceable way, we’re fine," Hogue said. "If it’s in a way that’s obstructing the operations of, for instance, the library or its patrons, that’s when time, place and manner restrictions may be appropriate regardless of viewpoint."
An extreme form of "time, place and manner" restrictions on political speech involves a governmental agency establishing a "free speech zone." The University of Central Arkansas has an established "free speech zone" in the plaza in front of the UCA Student Center to prevent disruption of campus activities. Also, free speech that is especially obnoxious to the general public such as that practiced by the Westborough church in states including Arkansas is confined to a "free speech zone" that is generally out of sight of whatever they’re protesting.
Hogue said that the disruptions he’s heard of concerning the "wet" initiative so far don’t approach the need for a "free speech zone."