- Dauphin County Parks & Rec director prohibited state house candidate from collecting petition signatures in a public park
- FIRE warned Dauphin County in October to stop violating constitutional rights and 80 years of Supreme Court precedent — or face legal action
- County doubled down, insisting that ‘Fort Hunter Park is not open to political activity—by anyone!’
HARRISBURG, Pa., Jan. 17, 2023 — Fort Hunter Park in Dauphin County, Pa., is a lovely place to run — just not for office.
Today the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit against the county and its parks and recreation director after they prohibited two people from collecting petition signatures in a public park.
“The county’s actions are an outrageous infringement of Pennsylvanians’ First Amendment rights,” said plaintiff Kevin Gaughen, a board member for Pennsylvania’s new Keystone Party. “We are filing this lawsuit to protect the First Amendment rights of everyone in Dauphin County.”
In an effort to collect the signatures their party needed to put its candidates on the ballot, Gaughen and Dave Kocur, the party’s candidate for Pennsylvania House District 104, went to where they knew they could find eligible voters: a public park.
On June 11, the pair stood in an open area of Fort Hunter Park, part of the Dauphin County public park system, asking passersby to sign nomination petitions. They engaged with park visitors about their new party for about an hour when park security guards approached them and ordered them to stop. The duo rightly pointed out they had the right to engage in political speech in a public park. One of the guards said he would have to ask his boss about that. Parks Director Anthea Stebbins arrived, ordered Gaughen and Kocur to stop what they were doing, and told them that the county bars all political activity inside Fort Hunter Park.
“Public servants shouldn’t silence their constituents,” said FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “If Dauphin County was really interested in serving the public, it would have allowed Gaughen and Kocur to talk to their neighbors about the issues they care about.”
Dauphin County cannot prohibit citizens from using Fort Hunter Park for political speech. For more than 80 years, the Supreme Court has made clear that public parks and sidewalks are sacrosanct spaces for political expression. But due to the county’s unconstitutional ban on political activity, Gaughen and Kocur left and have not returned.
On Oct. 13, FIRE demanded Dauphin County lift its ban on political expression in Fort Hunter Park — or face a lawsuit. In its response to FIRE, Dauphin County doubled down, insisting that “Fort Hunter Park is not open to political activity-—by anyone!”
Today’s lawsuit seeks a declaration that the ban violates the First Amendment, an injunction to stop the county from enforcing the ban, and damages against the county and Stebbins for violating Gaughen and Kocur’s constitutional rights.
“The government doesn’t get to decide what you are allowed to talk about in a public park,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. “Circulating a petition in a park is as American as baseball and apple pie.”
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; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kevin Gaughen (GAW-hen)
- Dave Kocur (KO-ker)
- Jeff Zeman (ZEE-man)