WASHINGTON The Supreme Court yesterday refused to hear appeals by four Arkansas cities that had sought to bar people from putting leaflets on parked cars.
The court, without comment, turned away two appeals in which the cities argued that their ordinances were a valid effort to control litter and did not violate free-speech rights because leaflets still could be handed to anyone willing to take them.
The ordinances were enacted in Fort Smith in 1981 and two years later in Van Buren, Alma and Dyer. They bar people from putting handbills on cars parked on city streets, unless someone in the car is willing to receive it.
Fort Smith City Attorney Todd Lewis said he thought the city's ordinance was different but said he was not surprised at the high court's actions.
"We thought this was a kind of unique area of the law. Our ordinance specifically said any occupant or driver of the vehicle willing to accept them could accept them. There was nothing to prohibit these kinds of activities," he said.
Three members of the Twentieth Century Holiness Tabernacle Church filed class-action lawsuits in 1995, saying the ordinances violated their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
The church members said they distributed literature in an effort to "preach the gospel to every living person in the earth." They also said that only church members had ever been charged with violating the ordinances.
A federal judge upheld the ordinances but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and declared them unconstitutional. The ordinances imposed too broad a free-speech restriction, the appeals court said.
Lawyers for the four cities said the church members still could get their message out by giving handbills to willing recipients. Pamphlets left on cars' windshields often wind up being thrown on the ground, the cities' lawyers said.
The cities also argued that the appeals court wrongly awarded attorneys' fees to the church members.
Lawyers for the church members said the answer to handbills being thrown on the ground was to enforce the laws against littering.
They said the appeals court's ruling followed "longstanding precedent that the peaceful distribution of political or religious leaflets is a fundamental right at the core of the First Amendment."
The cases are Fort Smith v. Krantz, 98-1753, and Alma v. Krantz, 98-1954.