Scarlet Letters for Everyone! Or How About Just Citizens…
Citizens in Charge President Paul Jacob has a piece up today on Fox & Hounds, a California political blog, discussing recent legislation that would force petition signers to wear a badge while gathering signatures, a First Amendment right:
Citizens in Charge strongly opposes any legislation requiring state legislators in California to wear—whenever speaking to members of the public—a large badge on their chests, which must read in no smaller than 30-point type, “Member of the California Assembly” or “Assemblymember” or “State Senator” or “Member of the California Senate.”
We also disagree with making legislators wear a large badge that reads in no smaller than 30-point type, “Paid Member of the California Assembly” or “Paid State Senator.”
In fact, we oppose mandating that any citizen of the United States of America must wear any large badge or sign on their chest in order to participate in public speech—regardless of what the government might require be printed on such a placard. Additionally, we do not favor labels for paid or volunteer door-to-door canvassers or campaign managers or campaign volunteers or even for high-priced advertising gurus.
Most important of all, we reject forcing any citizen or legislator, who might choose to petition his or her government (activity that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is “core political speech” and where the First Amendment is “at its zenith”) to wear any government-dictated message on his or her chest.
Any such bills mentioned above should be soundly defeated as unconstitutional (and, frankly, highly offensive) violations the most basic rights of Californians to political participation.
Yet, Assembly Bill 481, which inexplicably fails to require California legislators to display any badge at all on their person when engaging the public, would force citizens to wear just such a badge should they dare to exercise their First Amendment right to petition government. The compulsory badges would say either “Paid Signature Gatherer” or “Paid Circulator” or “Volunteer” or “Volunteer Signature Gatherer.”
It is hard to fathom any reasonable interest in enforcing such humiliations on citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that paid signature gathering is protected speech. In fact, it is highly protected speech. The High Court surely will not allow a state program of harassment and vilification of those exercising their “core” First Amendment rights. And, indeed, the Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law requiring that petition circulators wear a similar badge to those proposed by AB 481.
Meanwhile, we are aware of no case in recorded history in which a state or nation prospered because the government forced certain citizens to wear stickers, badges or signs on their body.
Further, AB 481 is so vaguely drafted that it would require people circulating a petition to wear a badge on their chest proclaiming they are a “Paid Signature Gatherer” even when receiving no more compensation than attending a campaign-sponsored pizza party or accepting a bottle of water from the campaign while working in 100-degree heat or being given a 69-cent ball-point pen.
Whether beloved by legislators or the public, or not, citizens being paid to circulate a petition as well as those volunteering to do so have a First Amendment right to petition without being compelled to wear messages chosen by the government. Reject AB 481 and all similar efforts to give the government the power to force citizens—even state legislators—to wear badges in order to participate in politics.
The California Senate version of this bill passed out of committee yesterday as well, taking this bad idea one step closer to becoming law. Petition signature gatherers would be required to wear something like this if the bill were to become law, the lettering is in 30 point font.