Library Commission May Protect Petition Rights

HomeCity of AustinAustin Public LibraryLibrary Commission May Protect Petition Rights

Story update: The Library Commission at its May 21, 2018, meeting received from City staff new draft Library Use Rules in the form of line-by-line changes to the current Library Use Rules that have been in effect since February 1, 2017. These draft rules (linked at the bottom of this story) would require petitioners to remain within designated areas, called Limited Public Forums, when gathering signatures at Austin library locations.

The Library Commission referred the new draft, as well as a competing draft prepared by the Commission Chair Chad Williams, that would leave the current rules unchanged, to a work group of commissioners. The work group will review these competing proposals and bring back a recommendation for consideration at the next meeting of the Library Commission. Whatever recommendation is ultimately approved by the Library Commission will go to the City Council for a final decision.

Will petitioners be corraled? Stay tuned for The Austin Bulldog’s coverage.

But competing draft rules pushed by city staff would restrict signature gathering to designated spaces

by Joey Gidseg
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Monday May 21, 2018 10:32am
Updated Thursday May 24, 2018 10:00am

The Library Commission will meet tonight at the Little Walnut Creek branch library to address rules for petitioning outside libraries.
The Library Commission will meet tonight at the Little Walnut Creek branch library to address rules for petitioning outside libraries.

The Austin Library Commission has for several months been grappling with what changes, if any, should be made to Library Rules that determine how signatures may be gathered outside Austin libraries.

The need for action was made clear in the final weeks of the petition drive conducted by IndyAustin for an ordinance requiring both a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or any other comprehensive land development revisions become effective.

At two different libraries on two different dates, IndyAustin volunteers gathering petition signatures near library entrances were issued criminal trespass warnings by police after being called by branch librarians who were following department orders.

At virtually the last minute the City dropped its objections to such efforts, rescinded the trespass warnings, and allowed IndyAustin to continue petitioning at libraries. Petitions were submitted to the City Clerk March 29, 2018, and were found sufficient to trigger an election.

The City Council has not yet voted to put the IndyAustin proposition on the November 6 ballot. The council on April 27, 2018, did vote 6-4 not to adopt the ordinance proposed in the CodeNEXT petition.

Past councils have pretty much always resisted adopting a petition ordinance outright and been forced to put the measure on the ballot for voters to decide. Some initiatives have been so distasteful to elected officials that they put a competing measure on the same ballot. That happened in 1992 with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. It happened in 2012 with the petition to bring about 10 geographic council districts. In both cases the petition measures were approved by popular vote.

What rules will govern future petitioning?

Tonight’s agenda for the Library Commission meeting calls for discussion and possible action on two alternatives for Library Rules that have been in effect since February 1, 2017.

Limited public forums—One version was proposed and discussed—but not voted on—at the April 23 Library Commission meeting. It would confine petitioners to spaces designated as limited purpose forums at just 10 library locations. Maps to designate those spaces have not yet been made public.

Leave rules unchanged—The other version would leave the Library Rules as they are. Rule 13 governs personal behavior at library facilities and allows petitioning outside library buildings “if done in a manner that is not disruptive of the normal use of library services or property by library staff or other customers….”

Shall petitioners be corralled?

Lynn Carter
Lynn Carter

Proposed rules that called for limited public forums were presented to the Library Commission by Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter and Library Director Roosevelt Weeks.

Roosevelt Weeks
Roosevelt Weeks

Carter said that the revisions “would allow petitioners to petition on library grounds now,” as long as petitioners remain within the boundaries of the area designated as a place to gather signatures.

The revisions to the library rules describe places on and around library grounds where petitioners would be allowed to gather signatures. They include restrictions to petitioning from within the limited public forums if the spaces are determined to be “unreasonably crowded.” The revisions state “the library facility may institute additional time, place, and manner restrictions on the use of the area by a method that reasonably limits the amount of time and number of persons who may solicit signatures on a petition.” There is no description of whose task it would be to make this subjective determination or what guidelines would be put in place to restrict the number of people who could petition from within a limited public forum. The size and shape of limited public forum areas have not been designated.

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire claims those rules would be unconstitutional, as they violate both the City Charter and the Texas Constitution. He notified City Manager Thomas Cronk, Weeks, and City Attorney Anne Morgan of his legal findings in a March 8, 2018, letter (copy linked below).

He wrote that Article IV, Section 1 of the City Charter states, “The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative,” meaning the City has no power to interfere with that right if not disruptive of the rights of others.

Further, Aleshire wrote, that the Texas Constitution, Article I Section 8, guarantees the right of free speech and Section 19 protects our “liberty” and “privileges” to exercise that right.

Library commissioners divided

At the meeting on March 23, Chair Chad Williams reminded Carter and Weeks that the behavioral rules for libraries have always been in effect and have always applied to everyone on library property and grounds, including petitioners. He questioned whether these rule changes were necessary and suggested they were a solution to a non-existent problem.

Much of the discussion about the revisions conflated the idea of petitioning with protesting, despite Commissioner Wendy Price Todd’s attempts to create a clear distinction between the two.

Weeks said that the new restrictions were beneficial because they applied not only to petitioners but to everyone on library property. “I can’t discriminate about who comes out to the library. If I had a coalition of homeless individuals come and stand where the petitioners are, it may cause a problem, and if someone has a radical agenda and they want to stand in front of one of the doors, would that be a problem?”

Although the questions appeared rhetorical, Williams replied that yes, what Week’s described would be a problem, and in violation of the free-flow rule specified in the current library rules. Pushing back on this response, Weeks said that Chair Williams had misunderstood what he meant, and explained that the problem was “the people themselves.”

Commissioner Catherine Hanna, in support of the revisions, said that it was necessary to restrict petitioning on library grounds to designated spaces because of the lack of specification in the current library rules about who was and was not permitted to be outside of libraries. Hanna said that she does not “think we should just throw the doors open and say anybody can come and get signatures for their petition.”

Williams moved to form a working group to draft a recommendation for city council, but Weeks advised that it was better to wait to hear what City Council had to say.

Discussion and possible action on the competing proposals are on the agenda for tonight’s meeting at the Little Walnut Creek Branch, 835 W. Rundberg Lane, starting at 6pm.

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Attorney Bill Aleshire Letter of March 8, 2018 (4 pages)

City of Austin Rules for Public Use of City Properties, effective Sept. 21, 2015 (6 pages)

Library Commission Agenda for May 21, 2018 (1 page)

Library Commission Recommendation 20180521-5b: Rules for Petitioning/Signature Gathering at Library Branches, May 21, 2018

Library Use Draft Rules, April 23, 2018 (6 pages)

Library Use Draft Rules, May 21, 2018 (12 pages)

Petition to amend the Austin City Charter concerning CodeNEXT  (1 page)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Library Director Misled Library Commission: ‘Austin Monitor’ reported Roosevelt Weeks said petitioning banned by ‘majority of urban libraries,’ April 12, 2018

IndyAustin Nears Petition Goal: Plans to continue petitioning at city library facilities despite having been barred before, March 6, 2018

Library Commission Debates Petitioning Rights: Petitioners appeal for access to library properties, library director and attorney adamantly opposed, March 2, 2018

IndyAustin Petitioners Barred from Libraries: One IndyAustin petitioner issued a trespass notice to prohibit setting foot on Spicewood Library property, February 19, 2018

Trust indicators:

Joey Gidseg is a volunteer researcher for The Austin Bulldog.

Who funds this work: This report was made possible for contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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