In Washington, it takes 259,622 signatures for a citizen initiative to be certified and make it to the ballot.
Signature gatherers have a limited range of choices. They can go door to door or stand outside businesses, ballgames and special events, clipboard in hand, hoping to catch the eyes of registered voters coming or going.
But there’s no better way to secure a John Hancock than to stand outside the largest single attraction in the state, the Washington State Fair.
Think of it as net fishing rather than rod-and-reel.
Since 2011, however, the City of Puyallup has put the kibosh on signature gatherers at the fair’s two busiest entrances, the Blue Gate and the Gold Gate.
“Not safe” is the city’s argument in a nutshell. It established “pedestrian safety zones,” some as long as 121 feet.
In our book, any restriction on the First Amendment rights of both speech and assembly sets off alarm bells. The sidewalks in front of the fair are public, paid for and maintained by taxpayers. Restricting an individual’s right to stand on them and speak freely is a reason for concern.
Initiative activists had good cause to test the city’s rules by filing suit earlier this year. We welcome the court system providing more clarity on the boundaries between free speech and public safety.
Unfortunately, the status quo will prevail at the 2018 fair. With the gates set to open in less than three weeks, the city is content to let the lawsuit wend its way through federal court in Tacoma.
We wish both sides would pursue some sort of good-faith arrangement this year – such as allowing signature-gatherers more room to roam during off-peak hours.
Puyallup’s safety concerns for an event that draws an average 50,000 people each day are not without merit.
Signature gatherers positioned along pedestrian arteries could obstruct flow. Sidewalks are often jam-packed and run parallel to streets with the city’s highest traffic volumes. Fairgoers could be tempted to fan out into traffic, although cops are on hand at busy intersections to deter rogue walkers.
But the city’s zoning not only impedes free speech, it gets in the way of free-market capitalism. In the initiative business, the 20-day fair reaps a big harvest.
The lawsuit’s plaintiff is Roy Ruffino, proprietor of Citizen Solutions, a for-profit operation known for supplying anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman with paid signature collectors.
Ruffino can’t be faulted for wanting to go where the action is. More than 1 million people make the trek to Puyallup for the annual end-of-summer hootenany. The crowds include a wide swath of the region’s demographics with a lot of registered voters in one confined space.
And because many fairgoers enjoy listening to hucksters sell the wonders of the Sham-Wow or the latest hot tub trend, they’re probably more receptive to the initiative pitch.
Rufffino’s suit actually stems from a quieter time of year. He and other signature gatherers were standing outside the Spring Fair last April. Pedestrian traffic was almost nil, but that didn’t stop police from threatening petitioners with arrest.
To Ruffino’s dismay, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle sided with Puyallup last week and refused his request for a preliminary injunction against the city. Settle cited legal precedent, saying the First Amendment does not “guarantee the right to communicate one’s views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired.”
That’s certainly true, but people wielding clipboards and pens aren’t exactly yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, and they’re hardly Antifa rioters.
Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto told us Friday he looks forward to the litigation running its course.
“If the court thinks we can tailor the zones even tighter, then we’ll follow the directive of the court,” he said.
We’d like to see the city make strides toward accommodation. After all, this isn’t about Ruffino or Eyman or any one initiative; it’s about the underpinnings of freedom.
This year’s fair opens Aug. 31. Loyal fans can almost taste the scones, smell the horse barn and feel the exhilarating energy of the midway.
Here’s another idea: Go out of your way to track down a signature-gatherer and consider an initiative or two.
Whether fueled by special interests or civic fervor, the process gives people a voice that should be curbed most cautiously.