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FIRE vs. Parks & Rec: FIRE threatens lawsuit after Pennsylvania park officials stop political candidate from collecting signatures in a public park
- Dauphin County Parks & Rec director prohibited political candidate from collecting ballot signatures in a public park
- Dauphin County must immediately clarify that political speech is protected in public parks — or face a lawsuit
HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 13, 2022 — Ron Swanson would not be impressed. Ahead of election season, small-government advocates in Pennsylvania face an unusual opponent — the local parks and recreation department.
On June 11, the Dauphin County Parks & Recreation Department prohibited a candidate and a board member of his political party from collecting signatures in a public park. The department’s actions are a clear violation of the duo’s First Amendment right to political expression.
Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression calls on Dauphin County to immediately allow visitors to talk politics in Fort Hunter Park — or face a lawsuit.
“Dauphin County is my county,” said candidate Dave Kocur. “I live and work here. Going back to Thomas Jefferson, our traditions hold that governments exist to secure the rights of the people. That Dauphin County did exactly the opposite disappoints and disturbs me.”
In 2022, amid divisions within the national Libertarian Party, Kevin Gaughen formed the Keystone Party. The party nominated Kocur for Pennsylvania House District 104. To ensure his spot on the November ballot, the party had to collect 300 signatures by Aug. 1.
COURTESY PHOTOS OF GAUGHEN AND KOCUR
On June 11, Gaughen and Kocur stood in open areas of Fort Hunter Park for about an hour, asking passersby to sign their petition to place Kocur on the ballot. The park is open to the public and administered by the Dauphin County Parks & Recreation Department. Security guards told Gaughen and Kocur they had to stop. The duo declined, pointing out they were in a public park and have the right to engage in political speech. Anthea Stebbins, director of parks and recreation, then arrived and told the pair that the county permitted no political activity inside the park.
“Local governments cannot require Pennsylvanians to check their First Amendment rights at the park gate,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick, who wrote today’s letter to the county. “With the election around the corner, it’s more important than ever that Dauphin County lets its residents speak freely.”
Stebbins presented Gaughen and Kocur with a copy of a document describing the terms under which the county was granted the park’s land by a private organization. She incorrectly claimed that the document prohibits political activity in the park.
Fort Hunter Park is a traditional public forum, meaning that members of the public have the right to speak freely within its grounds. Dauphin County cannot lawfully restrict citizens from using public parks for political speech. But due to the county’s ban on political activity, Gaughen and Kocur left and have not returned.
FIRE’s letter calls on Dauphin County and Stebbins to clarify that political expressive activity is allowed within parks like Fort Hunter. If Dauphin County refuses, FIRE will sue.
“If the First Amendment protects anything, it protects political speech in a public park,” said FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “FIRE will make sure Dauphin County gets the message and resolves to uphold park visitors’ rights from now on.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Katie Kortepeter, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
- Kevin Gaughen (GAW-hen)
- Dave Kocur (KO-ker)
- Jeff Zeman (ZEE-man)
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