Campaigners' Walk in the Park Runs Up Against Rule Book

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Back on the Fourth of July, a longtime Maryland activist and his sign-carrying sidekick were out meeting voters before the fireworks when, they say, police ordered them to immediately get rid of their campaign placard.

Now that campaign foray in a Montgomery County public park is prompting a legal dust-up over free speech.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union called on officials who govern parks in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to junk a broadly written set of rules requiring government permission before carrying signs or soliciting signatures.

"In America, you don't need a permit from the government to talk to people in the park or to carry a sign in the park," said David Rocah, a staff attorney for ACLU of Maryland.

The case arose when police stopped a Montgomery County Council candidate, Republican Robin Ficker, and campaign worker Amy Ginther in a Germantown park, according to interviews and a legal "demand letter" submitted to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission on Monday.

Ginther was holding a sign that read: "Robin Ficker: Property Tax Relief."

"You're going around trying to be friendly and create positive vibes, then all of a sudden you're surrounded by police. It's almost like you've done something wrong," Ficker said. "I was carrying the flag, because it's Fourth of July, right? That's the kind of day you'd expect to see a flag -- and a sign, for that matter."

He said he demanded to see the rule they were supposedly breaking. To their surprise, an officer pulled out Chapter V, Section 10. It reads, in part, "Carrying signs or picketing on Commission Property is prohibited except by permit."

"There was a feeling on my part that we needed to comply immediately. They were stern in their approach," said Ginther, an administrator at the University of Maryland.

So they put the 30-by-18-inch sign back in Ficker's Jeep and went on campaigning without it. But it wasn't as effective, Ficker said, because people couldn't see who he was from afar.

The park and planning commission's general counsel, Adrian R. Gardner, said the rules will be reviewed. But he said that they were written broadly to reflect the "complicated and very diverse" nature of the park system.

"Perhaps one sign was not disruptive to the other public uses at that location and that point in time. That exact same activity could be disruptive at other locations -- for example, at the butterfly show at Brookside Gardens," Gardner said. That indoor display of live, exotic species is held in "a delicate environment," he said.

ACLU's Rocah said the park rules are unconstitutionally broad and cited cases from across the country in which similar restrictions had been knocked down. He also noted that there is nothing in the rules requiring a permit that outlines how officials would make their decision.

The commission's executive director, Oscar Rodriguez, said the July 4 case, if it unfolded as the ACLU has outlined, points to the need to refashion some restrictions. "We don't want rules that limit free speech or go against the Constitution's letter or spirit," he said.

Ficker said Maryland-National Capital Park Police officers threatened to arrest them if they did not put the sign away. Ginther said she did not recall that. The ACLU said such a threat would be improper because the punishment for violating the rules is a fine.

Park police said they are reviewing the incident. In recent years, they said, officers have issued citations in four other cases under the same general section of the rules, but details were not immediately available.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company