ACLU, Tea Partiers beat back anti-leaflet policy

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California got a temporary restraining order from a Shasta County Superior Court judge today to keep Redding from enforcing a restrictive anti-leafleting policy also challenged by the North State Tea Party Alliance.

Strange bedfellows? Not really, if you hold both organizations to their stated, basic mission: protecting fundamental constitutional rights.

ACLU-NC attorney Linda Lye said her organization is “thrilled to be working with the Tea Party to protect free speech rights and defend the robust exchange of ideas in both principle and practice.”

City officials had adopted the restrictions last month regarding a plaza outside the Redding Municipal Library. The policy requires people wishing to leaflet to obtain a permit, prohibits more than one organization from leafleting at one time, bans the distribution of materials requesting charitable contributions, restricts leafleteers to a designated “free speech” bubble, contains what the ACLU described as “vague and overbroad prohibitions against offensive utterances, gestures and displays,” and prohibits leafleting in the library parking lot. Those violating these restrictions could be charged with a crime.

“The library is a cultural and intellectual cornerstone of the Redding community, and civic leaders should welcome and celebrate the library’s role as a public place for the free exchange of ideas,” plaintiffs’ co-counsel Thomas Burke, of the firm Davis Wright Tremaine, said in the ACLU’s news rlease.

John Oertel, a leader of the ACLU’s Shasta-Tehama-Trinity Chapter, said the policy “interferes with the fundamental right to speak freely and peacefully, and is totally unnecessary. There has been no history of aggressive or otherwise problematic incidents in the library plaza.”

In fact, shortly before the policy was adopted, ACLU members leafleted in the library plaza at the same time that Tea Party members were present; while the groups often take different positions on political issues, the ACLU acknowledged, their simultaneous presence caused no disruptions.

“These exchanges are a direct form of democracy – we need more of them, not fewer. People across the political spectrum have a stake in preserving our right to express our ideas and perspectives,” said local ACLU chapter chairman Don Yost, and a plaintiff in the case.

But, lest you think everyone up there was of a mind, the Redding Tea Party – apparently larger than the North State Tea Party Alliance involved in this case – didn’t think this to be such a big deal.

Redding Tea Party organizer Erin Ryan said today the alliance is basically an offshoot that “pretty regularly find themselves some windmills to tilt at” and didn’t act when city officials solicited public input during a lengthy comment period before the policy was adopted. “Those guys basically refused to participate in the creation of the ordinance, and then when it came out, they went crazy about it.”

Ryan said Oertel and Yost came to a meeting of her group in January…

…but the Redding Tea Party didn’t feel a need to get involved, given that local people simply didn’t want to be harangued as they entered and left the library and have its parking lot cluttered with discarded paper. She said she doesn’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but “I hate to see them making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.