One IndyAustin petitioner issued a trespass notice to prohibit setting foot on Spicewood Library property
Updated Tuesday February 20, 2018 12:52pm to add date of Library Commission meeting
The policy was distributed to library staff in an email from Sharon Herfurth at 12:27pm Friday, February 16 that states:
Several of you have been contacted by an organization called IndyAustin about being present on Saturday at your locations to collect signatures on a petition to force an election on CodeNEXT.
Herfurth, who is a staff liaison for the City’s Library Commission, included a link to the IndyAustin website in her email. The linked page states, “Volunteers will be outside some Austin libraries gathering signatures from Austinites who want the right to vote on CodeNEXT.”
IndyAustin organizers say they have been petitioning outside library locations for months before this happened and fear that someone has decided to use a heretofore unenforced restriction in Library Use Rules, effective since February 1, 2017, to stifle the petition drive.
Herfurth’s email to library staff cited specific parts of the rules. Item 3 of the Rules states, “Not a Public Forum. Except for the limited purpose of accessing information, the library is not a public forum.” Item 2B(3) of the Rules define “library” as “any building or facility of the Austin Public Library, including the entrance ways and adjacent lawns, landscaping and parking areas.”
Cease and desist, city’s initial response
IndyAustin responded to this unexpected obstacle by sending a Cease and Desist email this morning to the mayor, council members, city manager and city attorney. It was signed by attorneys Bill Aleshire, Bill Bunch, and Fred Lewis. (Copy linked at bottom of this story.)
The message cites the City Charter, which bestows the power of initiative. The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative….
“…unlike other forms of free speech the Council may be able to restrict to reasonable ‘free speech zones,’ petitioning for an initiative is an exception—a power reserved by the people of Austin—that the City Council and staff have no authority under the Charter to interfere with.”
“We request the city to cease and desist immediately to avoid further legal conflict and further violation of the rights of Austin citizens exercising their right to petition on public property.
“We therefore ask that the City Manager and City Attorney take immediate steps to assure than no other petitioners are cited or threatened with citation and any warning issued on Saturday, February 17, be withdrawn in writing.”
Mayor Steve Adler, when called for a comment, said he had not seen that email but responded immediately once The Austin Bulldog forwarded him a copy.
“I support Austinites’ right to petition and the city should have no content-based restrictions. These petitioners should have the right to petition everywhere all petitioners have the ability to petition. The city attorney is investigating to make sure all rights were respected here.”
Asked when the City Attorney might make that ruling, Adler replied, “I don’t have that detail.”
City Attorney Anne Morgan responded to The Bulldog via email, saying, “We will review the situation tomorrow when folks are back at work.
“My hope and assumption is that we applied the library policies consistently. They are not content-based.”
Petitioners shown message, shooed away
Scott Royder was petitioning at the Spicewood Springs Branch on Saturday, February 17, 2018. It’s located at 8637 Spicewood Springs Road in northwest Austin.
“I started petitioning about 12:30pm and a cop came about 1:30pm,” Royder said. Before the police officer came, Royder said a library staff member came to him and told him he would need to stand on the sidewalk that’s adjacent to the street. But that spot would give him no access to talk to library patrons who came and went by car. He said there was no pedestrian traffic at that location.
“She was polite and acted like she was embarrassed to do it,” Royder said of the library staff member. “She had a copy of the memo that library staff had circulated. She showed it to me as the reason why she was asking me to move.”
Royder said the police officer did not write an actual ticket but “got my driver’s license and called it in. I never got a piece of paper. He handed me his card with the case number on it along with his name and badge number.”
That case number was not yet available in the Austin Police Department’s online search for Incident Reports.
He said that a security guard told him he had to move to a spot near the wooden bridge over Shoal Creek behind the library. Since that provided no access to encounter library patrons, Royder said, he left.
Twin Oaks Library too
Jeff Jack, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said he was at the Twin Oaks Library at 1800 S. Fifth St. Saturday morning to gather petitions and three-fourths of the people he asked signed up.
“A staff person came out and said I couldn’t petition,” Jeff said. “I asked why. She went inside and brought back a paper from the library administration that said CodeNEXT petitioners were coming and were not allowed to be there.
“She was a young woman and uncomfortable asking me to leave. I didn’t protest and left. I didn’t want to put her in a bad situation. I was there about a half hour.”
Jack said he had been gathering signatures at events all over town but that was his first visit to the Twin Oaks Library to petition.
Did he have advance notice about the policy barring petitioning? “No, none at all.”
Bill Bunch, an attorney and executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said he went to the Twin Oaks Library that afternoon to petition and said he wasn’t aware that Jack had been asked to leave.
“They told me to leave and I said I wasn’t going to leave,” Bunch said. “I stayed. I told them if they wanted me to talk to someone higher up, I would, but I was within my rights.”
Bunch said he was there from about 12:30 to 2pm, left for some errands, and later came back for another half hour.
When read the mayor’s comments, Bunch said, “Hopefully the mayor’s not saying, ‘apply the rules consistently’ even if it violates the Constitution.
“They can’t tell you that you have to be somewhere there’s no one to talk with. You have to be where you can engage. It’s not free speech if they put you in a corner where there’s nobody to hear you.”
Private property owners can control access to private property, he said, but “public political speech is absolutely protected on public property. It’s unfortunate we have to go through but it should be obvious.”
Patricia Dabbert, a Library Commission member for five years, reappointed by Mayor Adler, said that she will obtain a copy of Herfurth’s email regarding this policy barring petitioning and she will seek a co-sponsor to put this matter on the agenda for the next commission meeting.
That meeting is scheduled to start at 6pm Monday February 26 at the Pleasant Hill Branch, 211 E. William Cannon Blvd.
IndyAustin SPAC Cease and Desist Request, February 19, 2018 (4 pages)
Sharon Herfurth Email to Library Staff, February 16, 2018 (2 pages)
Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].
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