ACLU considers lawsuit over campus canvassing restrictions

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas State University’s policy limiting canvassing on campus violates signature-gathers’ constitutional rights, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union contended Tuesday.

The ACLU of Arkansas is considering challenging the policy in court.

Officials of the Libertarian Party of Arkansas, who submitted more than 16,000 signatures Tuesday in the third party’s effort to qualify for the 2014 ballot, complained that some state higher education institutions hindered canvassing on campus with policies limiting speeches, demonstrations and distribution of printed material.

At a state Capitol news conference, party chairman Jessica Paxton of Marion said the ACLU had assisted in dealing with several state colleges and universities that were opposed to signature-gathering on campus. The University of Central Arkansas in Conway and Pulaski Tech College in Little Rock balked at first but later agreed to allow the petitioners on campus after discussions with ACLU lawyer Holly Dickson, she said.

Paxon told reporters later that ASU placed restrictions on where the canvassers could go on campus and did not budge on its policy even after talking with Dickson.

Dickson said later Tuesday she thought the ASU policy was unconstitutional.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a challenge comes, either from us or some one else. It’s just ridiculously draconian,” she said.

ASU’s policy restricts on-campus speeches and demonstrations to a specific “freedom of expression area” between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays. Reservations must be made 72 hours in advance of the event.

The university also specifies designated areas on campus for the distribution of non-commercial pamphlets, handbills, circulars, newspapers, magazines and other written materials.

ASU spokesman Jeff Hankins defended the university’s policy.

“We provide 19 places on the Jonesboro campus in high-traffic areas for freedom of expression activities such as petition drives,”Hankins said in an email.

But Dixon said the way she read the policy, the university wanted those free expression areas to be where people gather for speeches, rallies and other large gatherings, and as distribution areas where people hand things out.

“Most of the areas where students are located are not within those freedom of expression areas or the distribution areas,” she said, adding the policy that ASU has the right to implement is designed for large events, not individual petitioners. “Those really should not apply to single seekers or small groups on campus. These groups are collecting signatures. They’re not actually handing out or distributing anything.”

Because Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 2012, failed to get at least 3 percent of the vote in Arkansas, state law requires the party to collect signatures of at least 10,000 registered voters to qualify for the 2014 ballot.

The party ran 14 candidates in 2012 and more than 100,000 votes were cast for them, Paxon said, adding that the only winner was former Tull Mayor Frank Gilbert, who was elected constable of Kalb Township.

The party chairman said its goal in 2014 is to field as many as 50 candidates for positions ranging from governor to local offices.