I-517’s protections aren’t needed, go too far

The News TribuneOctober 4, 2013 

Roy Ruffino gathers signatures on initiative petitions outside a Tacoma store in June 2004.

STAFF FILE

Initiative 517 is a solution in search of a problem – and could create new problems of its own. That’s why voters should reject it Nov. 5

The so-called “Protect the Initiative Act” submitted by Tim Eyman – who has made a livelihood of getting initiatives on the ballot – is billed as a way to ensure that signature gatherers are not interfered with by “pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, or being verbally abusive, or other tumultuous conduct, blocking or intimidating, or maintaining an intimidating presence within 25 feet . . .”

The physical forms of intimidation detailed in the initiative are already considered assault under existing law; there’s no need for additional protection. As for yelling or being “verbally abusive,” I-517 could criminalize protected speech under the First Amendment.

There have been instances where signature gatherers have been confronted by opponents, but it’s not been shown to be a serious or widespread problem. A new law needs more justification than this.

That’s not what this initiative is really about anyway.

It’s really about expanding where signature gatherers can operate (including inside such public venues as stadiums, convention centers and fairs), taking away business owners’ right to make rules for signature gatherers on their property (that would be considered interference) and lengthening the amount of time for signature gathering from 10 to 16 months.

Given the number of initiatives that successfully make it to the ballot now, there’s no compelling reason to draw out that process even longer. If a proposal has broad popular support, 10 months should be time enough to gather the needed signatures to get it on the ballot.

And there’s certainly no reason to allow signature gatherers – many of whom earn bounties for every name – to wander around inside any publicly funded building looking for people to sign their petitions. Do sports fans really want to be approached in the stands by signature gatherers? I-517 would allow that.

What gives us the most pause, however, is language that could be interpreted as forbidding private property owners from setting any rules for signature gatherers. The initiative says that gatherers are not to be “inhibited or restricted in any way” on “all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of the entrances and exits of any store.”

That could be construed to mean, for instance, that a store owner could not require that petition tables be set up at only one entrance, not both. And some initiative topics are very polarizing; I-517 would not allow a store owner to opt out of allowing signature gathering at any location.

The right to petition the government is a vital one. But all rights have limits. I-517 overreaches, giving signature gatherers privileges that infringe on those of private property owners and the public.

To read earlier endorsement editorials, go online to www.thenewstribune.com/endorsements.

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