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The First Amendment was born in Pennsylvania — we won’t let it die here

Kevin Gaughen (left) and David Kocur (right)

Timothy Scott Kerns

Kevin Gaughen (left) and Dave Kocur (right) were told by Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, that they could not collect signatures in a public park. (Photos by Timothy Scott Kerns)

Kevin Gaughen is a member of the board of directors for the Keystone Party in Pennsylvania.


Fort Hunter Park in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, allows running. Unless you’re running for office, that is.

Local candidate Dave Kocur and I went to the park this summer to collect signatures to get Dave on the ballot. I never thought that small act would plunge us into a First Amendment fiasco.

As anyone who has ever done political campaigning will tell you, the best way to petition for ballot access is to go where the people are. Candidates often stand in public places, like parks, and ask for signatures. That’s exactly what Dave and I did. 

No harm, no foul, right? Not exactly. 

On June 11, Fort Hunter Park hosted an event called Proudly PA. Local food, craft beer — and lots of local people who may be interested in signing our petitions to get Dave on the ballot. While staying outside of the event, we asked people coming and going if they’d be interested in signing our petitions. Twice, security guards tried to shoo us (and our civil rights) out of sight. They said we weren’t allowed to petition anywhere in the park.

Not allowed to petition. In a public park. In the United States.

We teamed up with FIRE to demand that Dauphin County stop enforcing this unconstitutional prohibition on political activity in Fort Hunter Park.

The Constitution protects free speech in public spaces like parks. In fact, the First Amendment even mentions the “right to petition” verbatim. That’s exactly what I told them.

And that’s when things really got weird. 

Anthea Stebbins, director of parks and recreation for Dauphin County, tried to justify censoring citizens by handing me a copy of the document conveying the park land from the private Fort Hunter Foundation to the county in 1980. 

The document created a trust for the park to be held in, and it outlines what the trust may and may not do. One of the prohibitions on the trust is that it may not participate in “any political campaign of any candidate for public office.”

Director Stebbins incorrectly asserted that, that condition means all “political” activity is prohibited in the publicly owned, taxpayer-funded Fort Hunter Park. Her misinterpretation meant she wouldn’t allow us to petition or do any other political activity there. 

The message was clear: Dauphin County believes there’s no right to free speech in Fort Hunter Park. I felt like I was in an episode of Parks & Rec, facing off against a cocksure bureaucrat who plainly didn’t know or didn’t care that the First Amendment trumps any property transfer document and any state law. 

The only difference is that this wasn’t funny.

As Americans, we have First Amendment rights — and we need to protect them when they’re violated by elected officials. I’m not willing to allow a county bureaucrat to stomp all over my rights, or yours. 

We teamed up with FIRE to demand that Dauphin County stop enforcing this unconstitutional prohibition on political activity in Fort Hunter Park. Our request was simple: Affirm that the local government won’t restrict the speech of the citizens of Harrisburg in the public park. Otherwise, we would sue to vindicate our free speech rights.

On Wednesday, the government doubled down, choosing censorship over citizens. The decision means the county will have to defend their unconstitutional policy in court.

The First Amendment was born in Pennsylvania — we won’t let it die here.

 

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