Neb. Lawsuit: Cities’ Policies Obstruct Petition Circulators, Free Speech

June 28, 2006

The head of a petition drive aimed at capping state spending has filed a lawsuit alleging that the cities of Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island, Neb. are hampering the ability of petition circulators to gather signatures.

The petition drive, working under the name Stop Over Spending Nebraska, seeks a constitutional amendment that would tie state spending to cost of living and population changes.

Mike Groene of North Platte, one of the sponsors of the effort, said the cities have implemented polices that prohibit circulators from gathering signatures in public parks, on sidewalks and streets and outside of other public buildings and facilities.

“Each of these cities has put into place policies and practices which prohibit protected expressive speech and conduct in a manner which violates the plaintiffs’ and others’ First Amendment rights,” the federal lawsuit said.

One circulator, Amie Spradley, was stopped by police officers June 11 when she tried to enter the Celebrate Lincoln festival.

Festival rules prohibit “campaign materials, petitions, religious materials, brochures and/or solicitations.”

“Spradley reasonably feared that she would be arrested and prosecuted if she attempted to enter the Celebrate Lincoln festival in violation of the instruction that she was not allowed to enter, so she left the area and was not able to circulate the … petition,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks for an injunction ordering the cities to allow petition circulators to work unfettered in public places.

Officials in the three cities did not immediately return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Groene, who sells farm equipment, has said the cap is needed because state spending will go up 7.8 percent and 7 percent, respectively, the next two years.

Americans for Limited Government of Glenview, Ill., is also sponsoring the petition drive.

A coalition called Nebraskans for the Good Life said the spending cap would stop property tax relief efforts and place an even heavier burden for providing local services on property taxes.

Critics of the petition drive have said it resembles a lid that was passed in Colorado.

Colorado voters in November suspended the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights _ the strictest government spending limit in the nation _ and agreed to relinquish more than $3 billion in tax refunds over five years to take advantage of the rebounding economy and restore programs that were cut during the downturn of the past few years.

In order for the Nebraska measure to get on the November ballot, about 115,000 signatures would have to be collected by July 7.

Groene said he did not know how many signatures have been collected so far.

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