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Post office off limits for petition efforts

Allyn Harvey

Aspen’s interim postmaster has ended a decades-old policy of allowingpoliticians and issue groups to stand in front of the post officeand gather signatures on petitions.The new policy has been in effect since Postmaster Jarman Smitharrived last month. It is one of several changes at the post officethat have provoked sharp criticism from local postal patrons.Last week, Smith closed the exit behind the post office and orderedall of the newspaper vending machines to be removed from postoffice property by tomorrow. Now, facing the loss of what manyconsider the most fertile ground for discussing issues with voters,local activists and politicians expressed dismay with news ofSmith’s decision to ban petitioning.”As far as I know,” said local activist and petitioner JeffreyEvans, “the post office is still public property – it’s a quasipublic-private organization. Even if he has a legal leg to standon, he’ll be creating a public relations disaster.”Evans, who helped put the question that set a time limit for studyingrail on last fall’s ballot, said that over the years he has gatheredpetition signatures in front of several local post offices. Aspen’spost office has been a particularly useful signature-gatheringsite, he said, because so many of Pitkin County’s registered voterscheck their mail there at least once a week. Many local candidates for public office and their supporters haveused the site to collect signatures on candidate petitions.”They’re going to have to kick out the nonprofits as well as thepetitioners – anybody who ever set up a table to sell raffle tickets,”Evans said. The policy change, said Smith, is simply meant to bring Aspenin line with postal policy nationwide. Smith has the legal backingof the U.S. Supreme Court and he said he is willing to call thepolice if necessary.”If people are out there petitioning, we’ll just call the localpolice and have them removed,” Smith said. “Of course, we’d askthem to move off postal property first.”A 1990 challenge to the ban on soliciting and petitioning wasrejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to University ofDenver Law Professor Alan Chen. In U.S. vs. Kokinda, the courtupheld the criminal conviction of a man and a woman who set upa table and began soliciting donations in front of a post officein Maryland.Chen said the 5-4 decision ran counter to previous court decisionsthat have been very protective of people’s right to use sidewalksas venues for First Amendment activities. “The linchpin is that a Postal Service sidewalk is different thanother sidewalks,” he said.Smith said the previous postmaster in Aspen made exceptions forpolitical groups and the media that detract from the post office’sprimary mission – delivering the mail. If the policy change sticksafter Smith leaves next month, Aspenites will experience the sametranquility that exists at post offices in Carbondale and aroundthe United States. “It may be federal property,” said J.C. Haen, a supervisor atthe Carbondale post office, “but they just don’t go along withthat stuff [petitioning].”Haen said the setup in Carbondale is the same as in Aspen – thebuilding, its sidewalk and the surrounding parking lot are allowned by the U.S. Postal Service. Petitioners are allowed on thepublic sidewalk that surrounds the parking lot, but not on postalproperty.”A lot of guys will bend the rules to try and help people out,”said Haen, “but if you do it for one, you’ve got to do it foreverybody.”A spokesman from the Postal Service’s western district said thepostal policy manual explicitly prohibits political activitiesat the post office. “For reasons of safety and public access,we do not allow petitioning, soliciting and vending on postalproperty,” said Al DeSarro.But even if Aspen is merely being brought into the fold of postalregulations, Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland laments theloss of yet another public forum, and worries that political debatemay soon be limited to those who can afford to pay for advertisementsin the media.He noted that the post office is particularly important for peoplewho are making the final push to gather enough signatures to qualifyfor a ballot.”I’ve never heard of anyone being deterred from getting theirmail just because Jeffrey Evans was trying to get signatures ona petition,” Ireland said.


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