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Restraining order granted in Rose Bud petition lawsuit

The plaintiffs are suing for damages after allegedly suffering from years of sexual abuse while at "The Lords Ranch."
Michael Hibblen
A Judge granted a restraining order Thursday against a small Arkansas town accused of limiting the petition process.

A federal judge on Thursday granted a restraining order against the small Arkansas town of Rose Bud, which tried to pass a ordinance limiting how petition signatures could be gathered at public events.

Rose Bud, a town of about 500 people roughy 50 miles north of Little Rock, holds an annual “Summerfest.” The three-day festival began Thursday afternoon. It's held at the city's ballpark, but tickets are required.

A political advocacy group called For AR Kids was planning to use the event to gather signatures for an amendment to be placed on the November ballot. The Educational Rights Amendment would require private schools getting public money to adhere to certain regulations.

But, the group is running out of time; they have to collect over 90,000 signatures from 50 Arkansas counties before July 5.

Organizers say their signature gathering plan for the home stretch is to attend festivals and other public gatherings across the state. The group planned to set up a booth at the Summerfest in Rose Bud.

On June 17, members of the city council passed an ordinance to greatly restrict the group's ability to petition. Under the ordinance, For AR Kids volunteers could still operate the booth, but couldn't wander around and ask for signatures. The ordinance bans “any business or religious or political entity desiring to solicit business, membership or signatures for any purpose.”

Rose Bud Mayor Shawn Gorham explained the policy shift at a city council meeting.

“This is a family environment,” he said. “There is nothing political about this. This is not the type of place that you want to come and get bombarded.”

Gorham said he ran the ordinance by the Attorney General’s office to make sure it held up to scrutiny.

On Thursday, the ACLU of Arkansas filed a lawsuit on behalf of For AR Kids, specifically canvasser Steve Grappe who was planning to collect signatures at the event. Petitioning is a right protected by the First Amendment, but figuring out the exact places where it's allowed and how signatures can be collected is more legally complicated.

Thursday's hearing was speedy, as the festival was set to begin at 4 p.m. The hearing took place just a few hours after the suit was filed.

ACLU of Arkansas Legal Director John Williams represented For AR Kids. In his arguments, Williams argued the ordinance constituted a blatant First Amendment violation. He said the policy is targeted, because it would allow other petitions that are not political.

He also pointed out the ordinance doesn't stop someone from going up to the booth and telling people not to sign the petition. That's been happening across Arkansas in the run-up to the July 5 signature deadline, with several high profile petition groups having corresponding “decline to sign" movements.

In the U.S., any regulations on free speech have to pass a standard known as “strict scrutiny.” This means it has to be both “narrowly tailored,” and have a “compelling government interest.” Williams said neither apply here, and that telling canvassers they have to “sit in the booth” is censoring speech.

Attorney Donald Raney, who wrote the ordinance, represented Rose Bud in Thursday's hearing. During his arguments, there was a lot of confusion about what property the ordinance was referring to; the ordinance says it applies to petitioning gatherings “held on city-owned property.” Raney offered different explanations as to whether public or private property would be covered under the ordinance.

As he talked, Chief U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker interrupted Raney to say she wasn’t getting his argument. Several times, Baker had to make arguments for Raney and then ask if he agreed with that perspective. For example, at one point Baker asked “what I am hearing, is that this is a reasonable restriction?”

“Sometimes there's a right to freedom from speech,” Raney said.

He also said a lot of work goes into the event and that attendees should not have to deal with canvassers “shoving a petition” in their face.

Baker asked if someone would be allowed to carry a sign around the event that endorsed an ordinance. Raney said no. Raney often mentioned the Supreme Court in a general sense without naming any case law; Baker told Raney that he needs to name specific court cases in legal arguments.

Baker said the lawsuit should not be as much of a shock to Raney and the town as it seemed to be. She said that whenever a government body restricts speech they should prepare for a lawsuit. She then held a 10-minute recess for Raney to call the mayor and get clarification over what parts of the town were included in the ordinance.

Baker granted a 14-day restraining order about two hours after the hearing, and an hour into the festival. Organizer Steve Grappe, who was at the event when he got the news, said he will be petitioning at Summerfest without restriction. He also said it felt like “justice occurred.”

Little Rock Public Radio couldn't reach the town of Rose Bud or Mayor Shawn Gorham for comment.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.