Incident in Warrenton, past experiences prompt pre-Election Day warnings

Richmond , VA – The ACLU of Virginia is sending letters today to every police chief in Virginia -- 185 in all -- asking each to immediately initiate programs to educate local law enforcement personnel on the rights of political canvassers. The ACLU’s letter also includes a warning that the ACLU is prepared to provide legal representation to canvassers whose free speech rights are violated.
The letters were prompted specifically by a recent incident in Warrenton in which a police officer stopped canvassers to inform them that they were violating the town’s anti-solicitation ordinance. The canvassers were walking door to door asking residents to vote against the state constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of gay marriages and of other relationships between unmarried persons.
The letters are also a result of the ACLU’s long experience with suppression of political expression in the weeks leading up to elections. In addition to assisting canvassers, the ACLU has acted to protect the right of homeowners to post campaign signs and of campaign workers to distribute political literature in public places.
“Door to door canvassing for political and religious purposes is carved so deeply into the American landscape that one hardly needs to invoke the Constitution to justify it,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis.
“Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Supreme Court has struck down every local ordinance that attempts to interfere with this basic First Amendment right.”
“The ACLU acknowledges that canvassers do not have a right to enter property where signs indicate they are unwanted and that they must leave property at the behest of its owners,” added Willis. “But homeowners should not expect the police to remove canvassers from neighborhoods just because they find their presence irritating, or they don’t like the content of their message.”
The ACLU’s letter cites Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Village of Stratton, a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that political and religious canvassers could not be required to obtain a permit or even give notice before going door to door with their message.
A copy of the ACLU’s letter to Virginia’s police chiefs is found here. A copy of the letter to Warrenton Police Chief Connie Novak regarding the incident there is available upon request.

Contact: Kent Willis, 804-644-8022