KNOW YOUR PETITIONING RIGHTS:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q. Do I have a constitutional right to petition?
A. Yes. Circulating a petition is “core political speech” deserving of the strongest possible protection under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Q. May I petition on public sidewalks?
A. Yes. The Supreme Court has said that public sidewalks are “traditional public forums” that are “held in trust for the use of the public” for the purposes of “communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” The government may not ban petitioning on sidewalks and it may not require petitioners to obtain a permit. It may only establish “reasonable” rules such as rules against blocking pedestrian traffic or the entrance to buildings and parking lots and rules against setting up tables on sidewalks.
Sidewalks running toward the entrance to a building – even if it’s the entrance to a public building like a post office — may have further restrictions.
Q. May I petition in public parks?
A. Yes. Parks, like sidewalks, are traditional public forums where the right to petition is the strongest. As a general matter, you should be able to walk throughout the park and petition in areas open to the public anytime during hours the park is open, and you do not need a permit.
As with sidewalks, the government can only impose “reasonable” restrictions, such as no petitioning without permission in parts of the park reserved by private groups for events like weddings.
Q. May I petition on government property other than sidewalks and parks?
A. It depends. Government-owned property such as schools, libraries and municipal buildings are not “traditional public forums” like sidewalks, parks and streets. However, the government may open these areas to certain free speech activities at certain times of the day as a matter of practice or policy.
For example, a school may be off-limits to outside groups during the school day, but leafleting and petitioning may be permitted on campus before and after school board meetings or other forums during the evenings. If government officials have allowed petitioning or other similar activity by some groups at certain places during certain times, they cannot legally bar you from petitioning at the same place and time even if they disagree with your message. However, if certain buildings, such as police and fire stations, have never been opened to public expression, government officials are not required to allow you to petition there – although you are always free to ask permission.
Q. Where may I petition during festivals or fairs open to the public?
A. You may seek petition signatures from people coming to or leaving the festival by standing on public sidewalks, on streets closed to traffic and in public parks outside the area reserved for the public festival.
The question of whether you can petition within the inner perimeter of a festival or fair will depend on several factors. Initially, if the organizers allow for petitioning throughout the fair, then certainly you are free to petition where you wish. Also, several festivals and fairs have a designated area for non-profit organizations where you may petition – although some may require you to rent or reserve a booth in advance.
Even though a festival takes place on public streets or sidewalks or on public land, organizers may restrict you from petitioning in the area reserved for the fair under certain circumstances. For example, fair organizers may establish rules to prevent you from wandering the fairgrounds to seek signatures when 1) you have the option of petitioning from a booth or table in a designated area of the fair; 2) the fairgrounds are only open to those who pay an admission fee; 3) the rule is necessary to ensure the orderly movement of people in crowded areas; and 4) the organizers don’t allow people to engage in other kinds of activity that would obstruct pedestrian traffic flow. However, if a festival in a downtown area is open to regular pedestrian traffic and street vendors are permitted to set up tables on sidewalks within the perimeter of the fair, then you have a right to petition on the public sidewalks.
Q. May I petition door-to-door in neighborhoods?
A. Yes. The Supreme Court has recognized that there is a rich tradition of canvassing door-to- door for political change in this country that is protected by the First Amendment. The government cannot require you to register or seek a permit if you are not soliciting for money, and local rules governing door-to-door petitioning may not unreasonably interfere with your right to reach out to people in their homes.
Door-to-door canvassers should stay clear of houses marked with “No Soliciting” signs.
Q. May I petition on private property?
A. It depends. You have a constitutional right to petition on private property if you have permission from the owner. However, if the owner does not want you on their property and you refuse to leave, you run the risk of being charged with trespassing.
Q. When I petition, may I speak to people or must I wait for them to come to me?
A. You have a constitutional right to approach strangers to talk about matters of public importance and ask them to sign your petition. The possibility that some people might disagree with you – or even might find your campaign offensive – would not justify a government ban on petitioners engaging pedestrians in conversation. Although you are free to argue with someone about political matters, if someone tells you that they are not interested in signing or talking, you should respect the person’s wishes and should not follow or harass them.
Q. What should I do if a police officer tells me to stop petitioning and I think the officer is violating my rights?
A. Even if the police officer is wrong, we recommend that you stop petitioning because you are likely to be given a ticket if you continue. If appropriate, you can politely tell the officer that you thought you had a First Amendment right to petition and ask why you are being told to stop.
Try to get the officer’s name. You can contact the city, county or state attorney and file a complaint. You may also seek help from the ACLU of Arkansas by filling out a complaint form on our website, www.acluarkansas.org/get-help The ACLU might make a phone call, write a letter, or, in some circumstances, bring a lawsuit on your behalf to ensure that the police respect petitioners’ First Amendment freedoms in the future.
• Before petitioning in a city or in a park you may wish to check its website to see whether there are ordinances or rules addressing petitioning.
• Before petitioning on private property – e.g., an apartment building, a private “gated community,” or a religious institution – you may wish to seek permission to do so.
• If you have any questions, consult with a lawyer, or contact the ACLU through our website, www.acluarkansas.org/get-help