by Max Brantley
The ACLU announced today that the Central Arkansas Transit Authority agrees that citizens have at least some First Amendment rights — such as leafleting and gathering petition signatures — at the River Cities Travel Center. That's the bus terminal downtown at Fourth and Cumberland.
CATA had originally banned leafleting at the terminal. On reconsideration, it now says free speech can allowed at the center, but not on the central platform where most people wait for buses.
The disagreement arose after an organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations, Neil Sealy, asked for permission to distribute information about Social Security and Medicare for a week. His request was initially denied by CATA director Betty Wineland for alleged safety reasons. By my lights, the agreement still amounts to the functional equivalent of saying it is constitutional to prohibit one waiting bus passenger from talking to another waiting passenger. The CATA theory is that free speech might distract bus passengers and cause them to miss their buses. Really.
Sealy tells me he'd wanted to do leafleting and petitions on safety net issues in August. A busy rider himself, he notes his group had done voter registration there in 2004 and several years later did surveys on bus service, with free access and no problems. He adds, "Hate this happened. I am a bus rider and really want to see expanded and improved basic bus service supported by local gov (no river rail, please!)"
ACLU news release follows. It says it's going to continue to study the ban on free speech on the center platform to see if it's a reasonable restriction.
In response to a demand by the ACLU on behalf of Arkansas Community Organization (ACO), the Central Arkansas Travel Association (CATA) conceded that the public has a First Amendment right to leaflet and petition at the River City Travel Center in downtown Little Rock.
In August of this year, Neil Sealy, head of ACO, requested permission from Betty Wineland, CATA Director, to leaflet and petition bus riders at the travel center for a one-week period. Mr. Sealy, a bus rider himself, sought to communicate with bus riders about Social Security and Medicare issues. CATA rejected the request, citing CATA policy to prohibit any what it terms “expressive activity” on the grounds of the safety and comfort of its passengers.
ACO sought ACLU assistance. The ACLU wrote CATA that complete denial of access to members of the public who wanted to engage in leafleting and petitioning was a violation of the First Amendment. CATA responded by stating that the travel center was not a traditional or designated public forum and that therefore it could completely prohibit such activity. While acknowledging that the travel center was not considered by the U.S. Supreme Court to be a traditional or designated public forum, an attorney for the ACLU countered that it was nevertheless a public place and First Amendment activity could not be banned completely.
ACLU cooperating attorney Bettina Brownstein presented the ACLU’s position before the CATA Board of Directors. Director Wineland and CATA’s attorney argued that petitioning and leafleting could distract passengers, causing them to miss their bus. The Board instructed its staff to negotiate with the ACLU to reach a satisfactory accommodation of the ACO’s request. In December, the Board approved a policy that permitted expressive activity in all areas of the travel center except the \central island.
“While the ACLU considers the new CATA policy to be a major step in the fight for the public’s First Amendment rights, it is not a complete victory,” said ACLU of Arkansas executive director Rita Sklar. “While some restrictions on First Amendment activities are sanctioned by the courts, the restriction must be reasonable. We are collecting evidence to determine whether the restrictions now imposed under the new policy are reasonable, or whether further action, including a court challenge, is appropriate. In the meantime, we are pleased that CATA now recognizes that it cannot ignore the constitutional rights of the public.”
“Still,” Sklar said, “it is a shame you have to fight for the right to distribute information about government programs, while our founding fathers started a revolution to protect expressive activity using similar methods—handing out a piece of paper.”