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California city council moves to restrict handbills

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

What do you think?

The Pasadena, Calif., city council has approved this week on first reading an ordinance that limits the "unsolicited distribution" of handbills.

The measure, passed by a 4-2 vote, would permit city residents and business owners to place themselves on a list called the "unsolicited written material refusal register." Distributors of handbills and other written material would not be allowed to deliver to individuals on this list.

The proposed ordinance defines "written material" as "any handbill, pamphlet, newspaper, paper, booklet, poster, leaflet or other printed matter." The measure also provides that "it shall be unlawful for any person to distribute unsolicited written material unless he or she has, upon his or her person, a copy of the refusal register."

A memorandum from the city manager to the council explains the purpose of the ordinance is "to mitigate the negative impacts generated by the distribution of unsolicited written material." These "negative impacts" include litter, crime and invasions of privacy.

Prentice Deadrick, Pasadena's assistant city manager, said that the measure represents an amendment to the city's current handbill ordinance that also provides for a refusal list. The reason the city wants to update the current ordinance, Deadrick said, was that it "only regulated commercial-type handbills and did not apply to all types of handbills." Deadrick said the city "did not enforce our current ordinance after a similar Fresno law was struck down by a court for discriminating on the basis of content."

In City of Fresno v. Press Communications, a California appeals court ruled that a city cannot restrict the distribution of unsolicited written material based on content. Deadrick says Pasadena's new measure "does not discriminate with respect to content."

Councilman Paul Little says he has "been pushing hard" for this law after "numerous complaints from residents" about handbills. He said: "There is no intent to stifle anyone's First Amendment rights. This measure simply gives people the opportunity to put their name on a refusal list; it doesn't restrict what anyone prints. This ordinance does not prohibit anyone's expressive activities; it merely gives property owners the opportunity to say 'no thank you' to what some view as an incredible nuisance."

However, two council members—Ann-Marie Villicana and William Crowfoot—oppose the ordinance because of free-speech concerns. Villicana said: "I opposed [it] because I think we are trying to regulate something protected by the First Amendment. If the council starts limiting this speech, I fear it will be the beginning of the erosion of our First Amendment rights."

Villicana said she also opposed the bill because there is "no mechanism on how to update the removal list and keep it current."

The ordinance comes up for second reading on Monday.

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Last system update: Friday, November 14, 2008 | 01:34:35
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