Public parks are for picnics — and politics. Whether you’re laying out a blanket on the Great Lawn, grabbing a bench with a view in Runyon Canyon, or hunkering down in a pavilion off of Forbidden Drive, petitioners with clipboards are a familiar sight in the great outdoors.
One such group of people you might run into, if you’re out in a park in Pennsylvania, are the members of the recently formed Keystone Party. In the runup to their first general election, Keystone Party board member Kevin Gaughen and first-time political candidate Dave Kocur thought getting out into a public park was just the way to get their name and message out there. So on June 11, 2022, Kevin and Dave went to Fort Hunter Park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, to promote their brand of small-government politics and collect the signatures they needed to get Dave on the ballot in November.
Armed with clipboards and pens, Kevin and Dave stood in an open area of the park, talking to local residents who were headed to a food and music festival nearby. But not long after they arrived, two security guards approached Kevin and Dave and told them they weren’t allowed to collect signatures and would have to stop.
Kevin and Dave knew their rights. And they told the security guards that the First Amendment protected their right to collect ballot signatures in a public park.
As long as the county’s policy remains in place, it violates Kevin’s and Dave’s rights along with the rights of anyone else heading out into the park to try to talk to their neighbors about politics.
They were absolutely correct: The Supreme Court has long held that public parks are “quintessential public forums” for free speech which, for as long as anyone can remember, “have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” And the Court has been abundantly clear that the First Amendment is “at its zenith” when protecting speech that involves political expression. What’s more, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit — the decisions of which are binding upon government officials in Pennsylvania — has made clear this protection includes collecting signatures for ballot nominations.
Nevertheless, one of the security guards told Kevin and Dave he’d have to check with his boss.
Soon after, Anthea Stebbins, director of the Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Department, came out to talk to Kevin and Dave. She told them that the county prohibits them from collecting ballot signatures in Fort Hunter Park. To support her directive, Stebbins handed them a copy of the legal document placing conditions on the park’s transfer from private owners to the county in 1980. She said one of those conditions prohibits political activity of any kind. Rather than find out what would happen if they refused the guards’ and Director Stebbins’s orders to stop collecting signatures, Kevin and Dave left the park.
We hope Dauphin County will do the right thing, and confirm that members of the public are free to circulate ballot petitions — or engage in any other kind of political speech — while they’re out enjoying the fresh air of a public park.
And then they contacted FIRE.
Last Thursday, FIRE sent a letter on Kevin and Dave’s behalf to the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners, demanding the county cease enforcing its unconstitutional prohibition on political activity in Fort Hunter Park. As we informed them, the government cannot enforce private restrictions on public property to deprive the people of their rights. As long as the county’s policy remains in place, it violates Kevin’s and Dave’s rights along with the rights of anyone else heading out into the park to try to talk to their neighbors about politics.
We hope Dauphin County will do the right thing, and confirm that members of the public are free to circulate ballot petitions — or engage in any other kind of political speech — while they’re out enjoying the fresh air of a public park. But if not, FIRE will be ready to ask a court to do it instead.