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Government, Politics & Issues

ACLU sues to protect free speech rights of McKee opponent leafleting cars

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2009 - In the wake of the arrest of a man distributing handbills against tax-increment financing for a north St. Louis development project, the ACLU has filed suit in federal court challenging a St. Louis law that bans such leafleting.

The suit seeks an injunction against enforcement of a law that states:

"No person shall throw or deposit any commercial or noncommercial handbill in or upon any vehicle without the owner's consent. Provided, however, that it shall not be unlawful in any public place for a person to hand out or distribute without charge to the receiver thereof a noncommercial handbill to any occupant of a vehicle who is willing to accept it."

Violations of the law carry a fine of up to $500 and a jail term of up to 90 days.

The suit seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional and wants injunctions against enforcing it. It says that using handbills to spread a political message "is an efficient and cost-effective method of reaching a large number of persons living in or found in an area in a short period of time for which no comparative alternative exists."

The case has been assigned to Judge Rodney Sippel, who set a status hearing for Jan. 5.

Plaintiffs in the suit say they have been involved in putting on cars handbills on cars to express opposition to the $390 million in tax-increment financing that has been approved by the Board of Aldermen for Paul McKee's north side regeneration project.

They had worked to secure enough signatures on petitions to put the issue on the ballot next year, but they fell short of the 4,400 signatures needed by the Dec. 10 deadline. Michael Moore, of the group Committee for a More Responsible St. Louis City Government, said they had gathered 4,165 signatures.

Last month, as part of the signature-gathering effort, Gustavo Rendon was arrested for putting flyers on about 20 cars parked near 23rd and Mullanphy streets.

Rendon, a truck driver and former city police officer, said police told him he would have to remove the handbills he had put on cars. When he refused, he was arrested; the charge was later dropped by the city counselor's office.

Moore said that once Rendon was arrested, the effort to collect signatures was hindered. He said another referendum effort is a possibility, and other moves are under way to try to block the McKee project. Lawsuits have been filed in circuit court challenging the approval by the Board of Aldermen of the tax-increment financing and other aspects of the $8.1 billion plan.

The lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Moore and seven other plaintiffs said they "aimed to spread their message widely to people who live in or are found in certain areas. One effective and efficient way Plaintiffs found to spread their message was by distributing handbills on the windshields of vehicles parked on city streets."

But because of the city ordinance being challenged, plus the arrest of Rendon, the suit said, the plaintiffs "reasonably fear they will be arrested for continuing to spread their political messages by placing handbills on parked cars."

The suit names as defendants the city, the Police Board and its five members, including Mayor Francis Slay. A police spokeswoman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

In its application for an injunction against enforcement of the law, the suit says "it is not narrowly tailored to achieve any significant government interest and fails to leave open ample alternatives for plaintiffs' speech."

It also notes that federal appeals courts in St. Louis and Chicago have struck down similar laws as unconstitutional. One of the laws was in Granite City; the case there grew out of handbills distributed outside the Hope Clinic.

Moore, who lives in Kirkwood, said he wanted to help residents who oppose the project because he does not feel their views have been heeded.

"Residents of North St. Louis is not opposed to a redevelopment," he said. "They are opposed to the fact that their plans were not implemented. The plans and vision are Paul McKee's plans and visions, not the residents.'

"People always say, 'You don't live in this area, why do you want to get involved?' If a county police officer saw a crime in the city, would he not get involved? Whenever you see injustice, I always urge anybody to get involved."

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