GRO argues for rights

The group was banned from door-to-door voter registration in two buildings.
Friday, December 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A month after the general election, Grass Roots Organizing and the Columbia Housing Authority continue to battle about door-to-door voter registration.

“We just want to be sure that nobody’s liberties are being infringed upon and that our organizers have access to the residents of Oak and Paquin towers,” said Robin Acree, executive director of Grass Roots Organizing, a mid-Missouri organization that advocates on behalf of “public-assisted and working-poor folks.”

GRO prohibited from going door-to-door in Oak and Paquin Towers

From April through Oct. 2, organization members went door to door registering voters in Oak and Paquin towers, facilities operated by the Columbia Housing Authority that serve poor, elderly and disabled residents. On Oct. 3, however, security personnel at both buildings turned the Grass Roots Organizing workers away. Organizer Mary Hussmann of Columbia said the group was told that a resident of Paquin Tower had complained about the group’s presence in the building and that they were prohibited from going door to door.

Doris Chiles, Columbia Housing Authority’s executive director, referred calls about the case to attorney Dan Simon.

“For this purpose, Oak and Paquin towers are private facilities,” Simon said. “They are owned by a public entity for a specific purpose, which is to provide housing to private individuals. As private individuals, these residents have the same rights to privacy as you and I have as tenants in a private apartment building.”

After the organization was refused access to Oak and Paquin towers, Chiles told the group it could set up a table in the lobby of each building to distribute voter-registration information, an offer Simon characterized as “bending over backwards.” Hussmann, however, said it was unacceptable.

“Anyone who knows anything about organizing knows that this it is not nearly effective as going door to door and talking face to face with residents to exchange information and offer assistance,” Hussmann said. She added that her group continued to put fliers under doors of Oak and Paquin apartments.

Door-to-door access considered crucial in mobilizing residents

Hussmann and Acree said door-to-door access to Oak and Paquin residents is important not only to voter registration efforts but also to mobilize residents around concerns such as affordable health care, housing and utilities.

After consulting with several lawyers, Acree said she thinks that by denying access to Oak and Paquin for door-to-door organizing, the housing authority is violating its First Amendment rights. Acree cites two U.S. Supreme Court cases: Martin v. City of Struthers, which the court heard in 1943, and Watchtower Bible Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. the City of Stratton, which the court ruled on in 2002.

The Supreme Court ruled in both cases that the government cannot restrict citizens from going door to door to private residences to spread messages. Neither case, however, addressed access to individual apartments within a building, which in most cases is restricted by trespass laws.

“Freedom to distribute information to every citizen wherever he desires to receive it is so clearly vital to the preservation of a free society that, putting aside reasonable police and health regulations of time and manner of distribution, it must be fully preserved,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in the 1943 decision. “The dangers of distribution can so easily be controlled by traditional legal methods, leaving to each householder the full right to decide whether he will receive strangers as visitors, that stringent prohibition can serve no purpose but that forbidden by the Constitution, the naked restriction of the dissemination of ideas.”

Hussmann said the housing authority failed to abide by the National Voter Registration Act, which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Web site, requires that state-funded agencies providing services to people with disabilities also provide those people with voter registration forms and help them complete and mail the forms.

Hussmann said the Columbia Housing Authority had registration forms in the Oak and Paquin lobbies but did not help disabled residents complete them.

Simon, who has been contacted by three independent lawyers acting Grass Roots Organizing’s behalf, said that the organization has no legal grounds for its First Amendment claims and that the housing authority is complying with the Voter Registration Act.

“I will discuss this case with any lawyer who thinks that I am wrong and can point to the law to explain their position,” said Simon, who asserted that the group is shopping, unsuccessfully, for a lawyer who shares its views.

“We will do everything we can to abide by the law. That is our sincere goal and obligation,” Simon said. “But I will not respond to the rantings and ravings of people who are not lawyers about this. The conversations I have had with (Grass Roots Organizing) have been absolutely fruitless.”

The organization, however, clings to the hope that it can resolve the rift early next year by talking directly with housing authority officials. “I am confident that we’ll be able to meet with them soon and reach an agreeable resolution,” Acree said.

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