[ The following is excerpted from an 8-8-2007 ACLU press release originally posted by the ALCU on their website at: http://www.acluohio.org/pressreleases/2007pr/2007.08.08.asp ]
Free Speech Chilled by Mason Officials
Threats of Prosecution Intimidating Residents from Circulating Petition
MASON, OH—Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to City of Mason Law Director Ken Schneider urging him and other local officials to stop threatening prosecution for residents who were planning to circulate a petition to recall several City Council members. Schneider and other officials contend that anyone who distributed or sponsored the petition may be charged with a felony because they believe some of the claims of the petition may be inaccurate.
In his letter to Schneider, ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Jeffrey Gamso said there is no basis in Ohio law to charge someone with a crime because of supposed inaccuracies in petition language. After Schneider threatened prosecution, local organizers subsequently stopped the petition process.
Gamso said, “This is a classic example of free speech being chilled because the government does not like what is being said. Without any legal basis, city officials have intimidated these residents into silence by threatening serious legal action, not just for the authors but those who even dare distribute the petition.”
The statements by Law Director Schneider were made during a March 26, 2007 Mason City Council Meeting after members of the council saw copies of a draft of the petition. Schneider said that he hoped those who were planning to circulate the petitions were aware of the danger in doing so. Vice Mayor Thomas Grossman added by asking clarification that not just those who authored the petition, but those who are sponsors or circulators could be prosecuted as well and Schneider responded affirmatively.
Organizers claim that once officials made it clear that they would prosecute anyone associated with the petition, they decided to stop working on the campaign to avoid further threats or harassment.
“Concerned residents should feel able to petition the government regarding issues that they care about. Normally, one would think elected officials would be pleased that constituents want to have an active part of the political process. However, the actions of Mason officials indicate that unless you agree with them, silence is best. The First Amendment and the very foundations of our government say otherwise,” concluded Gamso.