Personal account of ballot access petitioning and harassment in public places in Maryland

For background see earlier article posted by Gregg Jocoy and My article at IPR.

I arrived in Maryland on November 22. Andy Jacobs was there one day before me and Darryl Bonner was already there earlier working on the Green Party petition (and the Libertarian petition when it became available – the Greens started earlier). Several other people came and went for parts of the drive, but the three of us gathered the bulk of the Libertarian petitions. Darryl gathered a good chunk of the Green Party petitions and Andy and I gathered somewhat small numbers of signatures for the Green Party as well.

Although it was the same time of year, the weather was about 20 degrees colder than it was four years ago in Maryland, and we had several snow storms. Temperatures were frequently in the 20s and 30s, sometimes with strong winds. Since the vast majority of places we work are outdoors, it made it more difficult to stop people.

One of the places we worked was at public libraries.

Since we are frequently harassed in public places where the right to petition has been legally established by government employees who are not aware of the relevant court cases, I carry a folio of related legal paperwork with me when I petition.

One of them reads in part:

These constitutional rights have also been held by the US Supreme Court to allow every citizen lawfully present in a public place to engage in peaceable and orderly expression of protected speech that is not incompatible with the primary activity of the place in question, including in a library. United States vs. Grace 461 US 171 (1983) .

Not all libraries are busy enough to make petitioning worthwhile, but we found that the Howard County libraries were busy.

Andy and I petitioned without incident at two branches in Columbia for several days, and then I wanted to try another branch of the Howard County library in Ellicott City. The library had a large outside semi-circle courtyard/veranda outside its door that was raised by some steps and then further surrounded by a narrow sidewalk. I am estimating the veranda is perhaps 40 feet across. I first set up my table outside the front door on the veranda, with enough room for people to get by if they did not want to sign, and at first things were going OK.

Then, library employee Stacey Freedman told me I was not allowed to petition there. I showed her the paperwork and she told me to move to the narrow sidewalk below the steps, which I did. That seemed grossly excessive from the standpoint of not blocking the door; if anything, it was blocking the sidewalk, as opposed to the large space on top of the veranda, which left plenty of space to not block anyone. However, I was still able to talk to a fair number of people, although I was cut off from people approaching the veranda from other directions.

I was still able to get sufficient signatures, but then she came out again and said that after reviewing their regulations, we had to give them two weeks notice and I had to leave. I asked her whether their library regulations superseded federal court rulings, including the US Supreme Court, and she said they had to follow their regulations. At this point I did not want to escalate the confrontation, but Andy told her on the phone that we would be back. As we were pulling away we saw two police vehicles pull into their parking lot.

I went back to another branch, at East Columbia, and proceeded to work there. Several hours later, branch manager Suki Lee came out and said I had to have two weeks notice. I showed her the paperwork about the US Supreme Court ruling mentioned above. She asked whether I had been asked to leave at Ellicott City earlier that day. I said yes, and showed her the paperwork they gave me, which I had not noticed at the time of the original incident reads:

The library requests that outside groups wishing to distribute fliers or to engage in petition drives or advocacy activities notify the Branch Manager, or his/her designee, at least two weeks in advance. Such activities must take place outside Library buildings and be at least 20 feet from the front entrance.

I told her the reason it says “requests” and not “requires” is because of court rulings like the one I showed her, as well as Maryland cases which specifically ruled that prior notice could not be required, including a ruling involving a LaRouche group vs. the Motor Vehicle Administration of Maryland which I am still trying to track down (reader help would be appreciated).

She then said she would call her boss, and came back with a letter from Ann Gilligan, Deputy Executive Director of the Howard County library system which laid out the rules such as remaining 20 feet from the door, not presenting ourselves as library employees, and so on. She also said if she got any complaints she would ask me to leave.

Andy and I then worked that location and the downtown Columbia library for several whole days without incident, often in view of librarians and police officers.

On December 18, I was once again at the downtown Columbia branch and Andy went to work at the Ellicott City location.

Larry Carson at the Baltimore Sun writes about what happened next:

A Green Party operative gathering signatures at Ellicott City’s Charles E. Miller branch library to keep the group on Maryland’s 2012 election ballot was pepper-sprayed and arrested by Howard County police, who charged him with trespassing and resisting arrest.

That much about the Dec. 18 incident is not in dispute, but practically everything else is, highlighting a sore subject in Maryland, and especially in Howard County — the difficulty in mounting a successful petition drive.

Actually, that much is in dispute, since Andy is a Libertarian Party member and activist, was leading with the Libertarian Party petition, and gathered far more signatures for the Libertarian Party than for the Green Party on this drive. It is however true that for part of the time we worked in Maryland, including that day, we also had the Green Party petition. The Baltimore Sun article does not mention the Libertarian Party petition. It was picked up at Ballot Access News:

Veteran Petitioner Andy Jacobs Arrested for Petitioning Outside Public Library in Maryland

Andy Jacobs, a professional petition circulator, has been arrested for collecting signatures in front of a public library in Maryland. He was working on the Green Party’s ballot access petition at the time. Because the (Baltimore Sun) reporter talked to an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, it is obvious that the ACLU knows what happened to Jacobs. Hopefully, the ACLU will help him defend himself.

The story has also been relayed by Gregg Jocoy at Green Party Watch and at Third Party and Independent Daily.

Maryland Green Party Chairman Brian Bittner is quoted in the Baltimore Sun

Bittner took issue with being required by state law to collect signatures, then encountering resistance from public employees. “Not only are we required to do it, but we can’t do it here” seems to be a contradictory message, he said.

According to the Baltimore Sun Article,

Andrew S. Jacobs, 38, of Mission Hills, Calif., a paid signature-gatherer and political activist, said he has worked in 30 states during the past decade, including at both of Howard County’s largest libraries in Columbia, without incident. He said he was polite and within his rights while collecting signatures at the Miller branch last month, and that the library and county police were unreasonable. Police pepper-sprayed him, he said, when he pulled out his cell phone and asked to record on video police Sgt. William Walsh ordering him to leave.

“I’ve petitioned for 10 years. I’ve never been arrested before,” he said, adding that he did nothing to prompt his arrest at the library branch on Frederick Road.

According to Jacobs, a library official and two county police officers refused to listen to him, insisted he leave, and police then pepper-sprayed him. After spending more than six hours in custody, he posted $2,000 bond and was released, according to court documents. He faces a District Court trial March 4 on charges that carry a combined maximum of 3 1/2 years in jail and up to $6,000 in fines.

In other words, what prompted the arrest was not refusing to leave, which Andy agreed to do even though numerous rulings all the way up to the Supreme Court say he had a right to be there, but because he wanted to have a record of being ordered to leave.

Other incidents where petitioners were ordered to leave public property where they had a right to petition occurred on this drive at Montgomery (County Community) College and the Glen Burnie Motor Vehicle Administration.

IPR will try to schedule a blog talk radio show about these events, hopefully some time this week.