PITTSBURGH - The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has agreed to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's request that it immediately suspend enforcement of a statewide regulation that prohibits any "expression of views" or distribution of printed materials in state parks without first obtaining written permission. The regulation applied to the activities of even a single person passing out literature or an artist twisting balloons. It also required individuals to submit a copy of the printed material to the agency before distribution.
"While government can impose permit requirements to regulate large demonstrations in public areas, especially in streets, it cannot force the lone pamphleteer or small groups of people to seek permission before engaging in political, religious or artistic expression," said ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director Witold Walczak.
The ACLU's request was prompted by several incidents in Pittsburgh's Point State Park over the past two weeks. On two occasions, DCNR rangers stopped Green Party candidates for U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, Mel Packer and Ed Bortz, respectively, from soliciting petition signatures. DCNR rangers called the Pittsburgh police, who threatened to arrest the men if they did not immediately stop their activity. On two other occasions rangers told a Duquesne man who twists balloons into art, Kevin Skolnick, that he could not do so without a permit. None of the men were blocking traffic or otherwise disrupting park activities.
In correspondence with the ACLU, the DCNR stated that the restrictions on political and expressive activity were required by a longstanding agency regulation. The regulation, 17 Pa. Code § 11.213, prohibits any "public assembly, meeting, gathering, demonstration, parade or other public expression of views," or the "distribution of printed matter," without written permission from DCNR and without first submitting a copy of the printed material to the agency.
Although the regulation has been in effect since 1971, apparently it has never been challenged before. One possible reason is that DCNR maintains only one urban park, which is Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh. Individual and small-group demonstrations are rare in rural parks. While the ACLU's Pittsburgh office has received complaints over the past decade about restrictions on political activity at Point State Park, they were always were always resolved by working with the Pittsburgh police and city solicitor's office. The regulation was never cited as a reason for the restriction.
The ACLU advised DCNR on June 15 that laws imposing similar permit and literature-pre-clearance requirements on political and artistic expression had repeatedly been held unconstitutional if they were not limited to large groups. Unlike with mass demonstrations, which may involve public safety issues, the government cannot place burdens on the free speech of individuals or small groups.
Late in the day on June 15, DCNR's general counsel agreed to suspend enforcement of the regulation while it conducts legal research. The agency "will not expect individuals or small groups desiring to engage in expressive activities in State Parks to obtain prior written approval" during this time.
"We frankly were stunned to learn of this patently unconstitutional rule restricting free expression in state parks but are pleased that DCNR has seen fit to suspend its enforcement," said Walczak.
More information about the case, including correspondence between DCNR and the ACLU and a copy of the code in question, are available at: /our-work/legal/legaldocket/dcnr/