Council says decision doesn’t violate freedom of speech

Peninsula News, California/March 30, 2007
By Ashley Ratcliff

Whether it’s a “No Solicitation” or a “Do Not Disturb” sign that’s on display, those going door to door will have to respect their neighbors’ wishes, the city of Rancho Palos Verdes recently decided.

At its March 20 meeting, the RPV City Council voted 5-0 to update the solicitation ordinance and thereby amend the RPV municipal code. The bottom line is: If a “Do Not Disturb” sign is clearly displayed at a property, that residence cannot be disturbed by anyone disseminating information, seeking contributions or performing any other manner of solicitation as defined in the ordinance.

The ordinance will come back to council for adoption at its next meeting on Tuesday, April 3.

“I want to see an ordinance in this city that allows each and every resident, at their choice, to put up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign and not be disturbed by anyone, period,” said Councilman Larry Clark. “If they don’t want to be disturbed in terms of solicitors, purveyors or information, et cetera, they put a sign up in a prominent place on their private property … and they have a right not to be disturbed.”

Councilman Douglas Stern added, “At the election of a resident — not the government telling anyone — but at the election of the resident, I feel the resident should decide whether or not to … allow someone to come to their door, solicit, proselytize, political campaign, et cetera.”

For Mayor Tom Long, the ordinance reminds residents to be mindful of their others’ right to privacy. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion include also freedom from speech and freedom from religion,” he said.

City Attorney Carol Lynch said council last amended the city’s regulations for solicitation in 1993. Council’s most recent decision brings RPV in concert with the U.S. Supreme Court case — Watchtower Bible & Tract Society Of New York v. Village of Stratton — that determined “it was improper for a city to require a permit in order for people to disseminate information in the community, advocate unpopular causes or anything that did not require or include a request for funds or contributions,” Lynch said.

Council last addressed the solicitation ordinance at its Feb. 6 meeting, but Stern said it’s been aggendized for six to eight months. To gauge the public’s views on the matter, Stern sent out a mass e-mail in early February to RPV residents and received more than 100 responses.

Contrary to what was widely misconstrued by residents, the ordinance does not in any way infringe upon First Amendment rights or ban solicitation.

“That would not be permissible, even back in 1993 and certainly, it’s not permissible today,” Lynch said.

The amended ordinance, Lynch said, doesn’t make it harder for a person to solicit either. “For example, we have taken out a provision that prohibited solicitation from what is called a ‘captive audience,’ which is just generally people standing in line,” she said. “We really don’t have those situations in Rancho Palos Verdes.”

Councilman Peter Gardiner said he would prefer a more concise version of the ordinance that would be easy for the residents to understand. “I think a simple ‘Do Not Disturb’ ordinance would be perfect,” he said. “The latest draft deals with the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign; the ‘Do Not Solicit’ sign has evaporated from the ordinance, which is why I suggested we simply rename it ‘Do Not Disturb’ ordinance and have it be four lines long so everybody can understand it.”

Generally, the members of the public who spoke at the March 20 meeting (more than 30 residents showed up for this particular item) were in support of the City Council’s vote. Many echoed Gardiner’s push for simplicity.

“It sounds like there’s already laws and ordinances that would take care of a lot of these issues, as far as harassment or littering and things such as that … In time, what if there’s such an erosion that our Girl Scouts can’t sell their cookies anymore or in our election we can’t put our posters out or our flyers?” said RPV resident Dana Proudfoot. “I’d hate to see our society come to that.”

Joyce Bost, another RPV resident, said the city did the right thing by amending the solicitation ordinance. “I’m happy … that we have a revised version of [the ordinance] and that we do protect the freedoms that we have,” she said. “I think it’s very important that you simplify it for the lay persons, for those who are not trained in law.”

Steve Denning of RPV said above all, the ordinance should cater to what the residents desire. “Often good intentions have unintended consequences … I think the lawyers got ahold of this thing and made it too complicated,” he said. “I think the intent was that the residents have a right to privacy and not be disturbed if they desire not to be disturbed.”

Some residents wanted the city to expand the ordinance so that violators could be arrested.

As convoluted as the ordinance may seem, Lynch said RPV isn’t the only city that’s grappled with regulating solicitation. “Different cities have taken different approaches depending upon the issues that have faced them,” she said. “Some cities have decided to only restrict aggressive solicitation and have no other provisions at all, except for example, provisions preventing the intentional touching without permission, blocking someone passing on the sidewalk. So some cities have focused very narrowly.”

The City Council may elect to simplify the ordinance or ask to aggendize it for further discussion or clarification at any time.

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