Law Banning Associations May Violate Right to Freedom of Association

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Below are some legal provisions, the first of which you may recognize if you aren't a member of the City Council of Gould, Arkansas.

Congress shall make no law … 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.

[Neither] the Mayor nor City Council members shall attend or participate in any meetings with any organization in any location without City Council approval by [a two-thirds vote].

The Gould Citizens Advisory Council … is hereby banned from doing business in the City of Gould…. [T]he said Council is, in effect, causing confusion and discourse among the citizens of Gould and as a result is contributing to the friction not only between the Mayor and Council but also among the citizens …. Also no new organizations shall be allowed to exist in the City of Gould without approval from a majority of the City Council.

Emphasis added.

The first one is part of the United States Constitution and has actually been the law for the last 219 and a half years or so. The other two were passed by the Gould City Council (overriding the mayor's veto) on July 12. Gould is a small town southeast of Little Rock, and tensions appear to be a little high there over how the city is going to pay a large sum of back taxes. The citizens' advisory council, of which the mayor is a member, has clashed with the City Council over that issue, and the citizens' tactics have included – if you can believe this – actually showing up at public meetings and criticizing officials.

The Council decided to put a stop to that sort of thing.

Councilwoman Sonja Farley, a supporter of the restrictions, seemed a little peeved about the idea of people wanting to meet without getting permission. "You couldn't just come in here and get with four people and decide you want to start an organization," she said. Who do you think you are? "You will go through your city council with documentation, the right paperwork and get an approval." If you get an approval, that is. To Farley, this is just the way of the world. "In everything, you have somebody in control over it," she said. Actually, no; and if yes, not you.

The mayor has been appropriately outraged. "This is America," he noted, "and even though this is Gould, Arkansas, this is still part of America." Well, that area has been part of "America" for several hundred years, but it has been part of the United States since 1836. It did take a few years off during the 1860s, but the U.S. Constitution has been back in play there since 1868, and it does have that pesky amendment guaranteeing the right to speak, assemble, and petition the government. (The right to "association" is basically just the combination of those three rights.)

Sonja Farley and the other members of the Junior Dictators Club (I'm assuming they still allow themselves to meet) might also argue that those rules only apply to the federal government, not the states. But Oregon ruined that argument for them a long time ago when it tried to prosecute somebody for attending a Communist Party meeting.

The city attorney told the Council these ordinances were illegal. It tried to fire him. Reporters got the same opinion from John DiPippa, dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "I couldn't believe it was real when I first read it," DiPippa said. "The fact is, [though] it's aimed at this group, it also extends to you talking to your mother or a church group or any other group that wants to form. A garden club!" he exclaimed, obviously blind to the dangers posed by unregulated garden clubs. (Why do they hate our freedom?) It's so broad, he told reporters, the interviews they conducted in Gould were illegal. "Technically," he said, "when [council members] met with you, they violated their own ordinance."

It may have dawned on Farley that there is a problem here, but she thinks it can be solved with a rewrite. "This ordinance was worded wrong," she said. "It wasn't written to stop people from meeting," she claimed, although it clearly was, but rather "to treat everybody fairly." Everybody's equal in Gould – some are just more equal than others.

In the meantime, the mayor says, he and everybody else are just ignoring the unconstitutional laws, which I assume means that they have law enforcement on their side. If only the rest of us were always that lucky.