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Judge rules that button seller in Washington must have permit

Frank Enten of Bethesda regularly travels to the District to sell campaign buttons; he says political discourse, not the money, motivates him.
Frank Enten of Bethesda regularly travels to the District to sell campaign buttons; he says political discourse, not the money, motivates him. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a 79-year-old vendor must obtain a license to sell political buttons on the District's streets.

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The vendor, Frank Enten of Bethesda, had asked the judge to temporarily block the District from requiring him to get a vending license and site permit to sell his buttons.

He and his attorney, Andrew Tauber, had argued that the District regulations improperly chilled Enten's political speech. They said that the selling of political buttons was protected under the First Amendment and that the District should not be allowed to require him to obtain such paperwork. D.C. police have arrested him and chased him off street corners because he does not have a license.

The District had argued that Enten is no different than vendors selling hot dogs or T-shirts. They said the restrictions were designed to ensure that the city didn't become crowded with carts, tables and the like, disrupting commerce on sidewalks. District lawyers said the regulations were "content neutral" and did not discriminate against anyone's viewpoints.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman agreed with the District.

In a 20-page opinion that rejected Enten's request for a preliminary injunction, the judge ruled that the regulations appeared to be narrowly tailored and not overly burdensome on Enten. The judge noted that Enten didn't need District permission to discuss and display his buttons on street corners -- he needs a license and permit only to sell them.

"Although he is engaging in protected speech," the judge wrote, "the permitting and licensing scheme appears to be a permissible time, place and manner restriction."

Friedman's ruling does not end Enten's legal challenge. The button seller could continue to press for a trial. Tauber said he was reviewing the opinion and weighing his client's options. Enten has sold political buttons ranging from historical ones to those of more recent vintage on District streets for years.


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