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Pasadena city council gives final approval to handbill ordinance

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

The Pasadena city council gave final approval Monday night to an ordinance that limits the "unsolicited distribution" of handbills.

The measure passed first reading last week. Last night's 4-1 vote, with two members absent, means the law will take effect in 30 days.

The law's stated goal is "to mitigate the negative effects generated by the distribution of unsolicited written material." The law prohibits the distribution of unsolicited written material, which includes handbills and newspapers, to individuals who have placed themselves on a city-maintained refusal list, called the "Unsolicited Written Material Refusal Register."

The law further 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."

Paul Little, the councilman who spearheaded efforts to pass the bill, said: "I am very happy with last night's vote. This law is not at all about limiting free speech, but about protecting privacy rights. This law gives residents the option to not have things delivered to their doorsteps that they don't want."

Two council members spoke out against the ordinance at last week's council meeting, saying free-speech rights would be compromised.

Free-speech expert Richard Kaplar, vice president of the Media Institute, also finds constitutional problems with the bill. He said: "The ordinance's cumbersome requirements will have the practical effect of chilling great amounts of speech, commercial and non-commercial alike.

"Many newspaper publishers and other speakers in Pasadena will now have to buy and carry a 'license' from the city in the form of the Refusal Registry before the city allows them to speak," Kaplar said. "What's the difference between licensing the method of distribution and licensing printing presses themselves?

"The ordinance hearkens back to 1942 when the first commercial-speech case, which dealt with flier distribution, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. But no First Amendment advocate wants to see commercial speech or any other speech dragged back down to that low-water mark."

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