Gaughen v. Dauphin County, PA: Local Government Prohibits Political Activity in Public Park


Case Overview

FIRE Victory closed


Update: Victory! On April 26, 2023, the Court ordered Dauphin County and its parks and recreation department director to end an unconstitutional ban on political speech in Fort Hunter Park. That order, part of an overall agreement to resolve Gaughen and Kocur’s lawsuit, also requires Dauphin County to acknowledge that its ban on political speech in the park violated the First Amendment. As part of the settlement, Dauphin County also paid $91,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

If the First Amendment protects anything, it protects political speech in a public park. 

Kevin Gaughen is a board member of the Keystone Party, a newly formed political party in Pennsylvania. Dave Kocur, running for office for the first time, was the Keystone Party’s 2022 candidate for Pennsylvania House District 104. On June 11, Kevin and Dave went to Fort Hunter Park, a large public park in Harrisburg, to collect signatures for Dave to be on the ballot. But before long, Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Director Anthea Stebbins, flanked by security guards, approached Kevin and Dave and told them they were not allowed to engage in political activity in the park.

Stebbins told Kevin and Dave that the County prohibits political activity in Fort Hunter Park, supposedly because of conditions imposed by the private entity that transferred the park to Dauphin County decades ago. This prohibition is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has long held that members of the public have every right to engage in political activity in public parks.

On October 13, 2022, FIRE demanded the county rescind its unconstitutional policy . . . or face a lawsuit. On October 19, 2022, Dauphin County responded by saying it would do no such thing, and that the ban on political activity in Fort Hunter Park has long been county policy: “For the reasons set forth in the Indenture, Fort Hunter Park is not open to political activity – by anyone!”

On January 16, 2022, FIRE made good on its promise and sued Dauphin County and Parks Director Stebbins on Kevin and Dave’s behalf. The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the county’s policy violates the First Amendment, an injunction prohibiting county officials from enforcing the policy, and damages for the past violation of Kevin and Dave’s right to free speech in a public park. 

Kevin and Dave hope to not only return to Fort Hunter Park to talk to their neighbors about the Keystone Party, but to protect the rights of all Pennsylvanians to use public parks for core political speech.