July 21, 2011
“No new organizations shall be permitted to exist in the City of Gould without approval from a majority of City Council.”
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Sometimes fame and glory just don’t get spread around evenly. Like the quarterback of a football team or the lead singer of a rock band, there are parts of any entity that get more attention than others. The same is true for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
After all, we’re nearly universally familiar with the freedom of religion and the ongoing debate over the phrase “separation of church and state.” We’re also well versed as a nation with our freedom of speech (even if only Constitutional scholars and appellate judges ever really grasp its fine nuances). But the latter part of the First Amendment, covering the right of people to petition their government and to peaceably assemble, is largely forgotten. Or at least it has been conveniently forgotten by one Arkansas hamlet.
Gould, Ark., is a small town near Pine Bluff. Roughly the size of the Village of Ashley, it has fallen on hard economic times with a median income just over $19,000 and more than a third of the population living below the poverty line. The financial troubles in Gould extend to the town government as well. Unable to meet expenses, Gould finds itself with a massive $300,000 IOU to the IRS. The situation is so bad in Gould that a group of citizens decided to form a citizen’s advisory council, and that’s where things got ugly on a Constitutional level.
It seems that the town council of Gould and its mayor haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye on much of anything. On the other hand, the mayor and the citizen’s advisory group are getting along just fine. This angered the town council enough that they were driven to action and came up with a new ordinance so obviously unconstitutional that their city attorney told them not to pass it (for which he was reportedly nearly fired). It is an ordinance so patently wrong that publications across the political spectrum from the New York Times to The New American lambasted the town for its actions.
In language reminiscent of totalitarian regimes everywhere, the ordinance first outlaws the citizen’s advisory council specifically providing that it is, “hereby banned from doing business in the City of Gould.” Not satisfied, however at the banning of just a single organization, the council then moved on to outlaw everything from book clubs to sewing circles. That’s because the second paragraph of the ordinance provides, “no new organizations shall be allowed to exist in the City of Gould without prior approval from a majority of City Council.” That’s right — no poetry club, no softball team, no groups at all unless City Council signs off on them.
Not satisfied with that action (which the mayor has, for now, vetoed) the City Council passed a separate ordinance banning the mayor from meeting with “any organization” anywhere — inside the city or not — without prior approval from the City Council. Apparently, violating the right to assemble wasn’t enough, so the council got in a violation of the mayor’s right to free speech as well. The mayor vetoed that ordinance too, but the council overrode his veto.
The Times quoted the mayor as saying that the provisions were “blatantly unconstitutional” and the local FOX affiliate quoted one council member as saying that council was empowered to have control over “everything.” Undaunted, the mayor says he’ll ignore the ordinances and the citizen’s group says it will continue to meet.
There are many interpretations of constitutional provisions, but the Gould council should rest comfortably in the knowledge that they managed to violate the Constitution so blatantly that they brought the entire political spectrum together in opposition to them. And that’s not easy to do.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney. He denies ever being a member of an illegal sewing circle, garden group or poetry club.