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Solicitor Licenses, Curfew Overturned in Minnesota

(CN) - Efforts to license and impose curfews on door-to-door solicitors in Bloomington, Minn., infringe on a labor-advocacy nonprofit's rights, a federal judge ruled.

Working America says it recruited most of its 3 million-plus members through door-to-door canvassers, who speak with prospective members about the group's interests and goals.

The costly yet effective recruitment method works best from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., but a Bloomington law on the books since 2003 allows soliciting only between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.

When Working America advised Bloomington of a planned member recruitment canvass in June 2011, the city license examiner said that canvassers are not exempt from the solicitor-licensing requirement since they are paid.

Though Working America claims to have written the city attorney multiple times regarding the constitutionality of the ordinance, it has never applied for a license.

U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery granted Working America summary judgment Wednesday, finding that the law amounts to a content-based restriction on speech.

"The need to obtain a permit depends entirely on the communicative content of the message," Montgomery wrote. "If the purpose of the speaker is merely to raise awareness for an issue or to collect signatures for a proposed ballot initiative, a permit is not required. However, once the individual asks for a donation, the purpose or function of the speech has changed and a permit is now required. Put simply, because whether speech is 'regulated activity' can turn exclusively on the purpose or content of the message, the ordinance is content based."

Bloomington's curfew is also a content-based restriction on speech, the ruling states.

"The city has no tangible evidence that demonstrates solicitation occurring before 8 p.m. is more invasive than solicitation occurring after 8 p.m.," Montgomery wrote. "Although it is true that as the evening proceeds toward bedtime, a doorbell ring becomes more invasive, the city provides no evidence that 8 p.m. is when privacy interests need to be protected. The city cannot establish 8 p.m. as a time for when an individual's First Amendment rights must sunset."

Montgomery tossed aside the city's claim that the ordinance deters crime.

"With respect to crime, the Supreme Court has questioned the efficacy of a license regime in curtailing crime, noting that opportunistic criminals could simply engage in activity that does not require a permit, such as requesting to use the telephone or posing as a surveyer," Montgomery wrote. "Furthermore, the city fails to offer any tangible evidence of criminal conduct by solicitors which were the target of the licensing requirement of the ordinance. Indeed, the sparse evidence proffered by the city on this issue is either anecdotal, aimed at concerns other than criminal activity, or too general to be helpful."

David Wehde, the director of Working America-Minnesota, said that the organization is "pleased" with the ruling, noting that the group tried to resolve the matter "both before and during" litigation.

"We value our constitutionally protected political speech, and will seek to enforce it through the courts where necessary," Wehde said in a statement.

"We believe the influence of big money and big corporations dominates our democracy," Wehde continued. "For working people to have a voice and power to influence decisions that affect their lives, they need the strength in numbers and a path to collective action that Working America provides. We saw this case as mission-critical."

Bloomington has not returned a request for comment.

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