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VICTORY: After FIRE lawsuit, Dauphin County to lift ban on political expression in public park, pay $91K
- Dauphin County officials stopped a political candidate from collecting signatures in a Harrisburg park.
- The county is now required by court to allow political activity in Fort Hunter Park.
HARRISBURG, Pa., April 26, 2023 — After getting kicked out of a park for talking politics, Kevin Gaughen and Dave Kocur sued their Pennsylvania county — and won.
Today, a federal court ordered Dauphin County and its parks and recreation department director to end an unconstitutional ban on political speech in Fort Hunter Park. Gaughen and Kocur, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, filed a lawsuit against the county in January after its parks director prohibited the pair from collecting petition signatures in a public park. The order implements a condition of Gaughen’s and Kocur’s agreement to settle the lawsuit.
The court’s order acknowledges that Dauphin County’s ban on political speech violated the First Amendment. The county will also pay $91,000 to settle the case.
“This victory isn’t just a victory for Dave and me, it’s a victory for everyone in Dauphin County,” said Gaughen. “When the county government wouldn’t back down, FIRE sued on our behalf. It was very reassuring to have FIRE in our corner.”
Gaughen is a board member of the Keystone Party of Pennsylvania. To collect the signatures necessary to put candidates on the ballot, Gaughen joined Kocur, the party’s candidate for Pennsylvania House District 104, where they knew they could find voters: a public park.
COURTESY PHOTOS OF GAUGHEN AND KOCUR
On June 11, 2022, 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 political party for about an hour before park security guards approached them and ordered them to stop. The duo correctly pointed out they had the right to engage in political speech in a public park. Then Parks Director Anthea Stebbins arrived and ordered Gaughen and Kocur to stop what they were doing, telling them the county bars all political activity inside Fort Hunter Park.
“Kevin and Dave knew their First Amendment rights and tried to stand up for them,” said FIRE attorney Jeff Zeman. “But Dauphin County insisted on ignoring the commands of the Constitution. That’s why FIRE got involved.”
Last October, FIRE demanded that Dauphin County lift its ban on political expression in the park or face a lawsuit. In response, Dauphin County doubled down, insisting that “Fort Hunter Park is not open to political activity – by anyone!”
On Jan. 16, FIRE sued Stebbins and Dauphin County to remove the ban on political activity in Fort Hunter Park and pay damages for violating Gaughen and Kocur’s First Amendment rights. Today’s settlement accomplishes both those goals, vindicating the plaintiffs’ rights and protecting the rights of others by abolishing an unconstitutional ban on speech in a public park.
“It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit for Dauphin County to open their parks to political activity,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. “Thanks to Kevin and Dave, Pennsylvanians can now talk politics in Fort Hunter Park without fear of government censorship.”
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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