PARIS – An organization in favor of an Oxford County casino has named 15 defendants in a civil action, claiming the First Amendment rights of petitioners were violated.

Seth T. Carey, founder of and attorney for Evergreen Mountain Enterprises LLC, filed the complaint with Oxford County Superior Court last week. The action names the cities of Lewiston, Augusta, Portland and Bangor as defendants, as well as the Maine Mall, Bangor Mall, Auburn Mall, Topsham Fair Mall, Packard Development, Cedarwood Properties Inc., KGI Properties LLC, Wal-Mart Stores, Hannaford Stores, and Maine Community School District 44.

“At all of these places, Maine citizens have been denied their constitutional guarantee to petition,” Carey said.

He said that while the businesses may be considered private property, they have taken on the “functional equivalent of the traditional town square.”

According to an affidavit, Evergreen is attempting to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot to establish a resort casino in Oxford County. The organization must collect 55,087 signatures by Jan. 12 for the question to go before voters.

At last count his organization had collected between 64,000 to 65,000 signatures, Carey said.

“There are generally several thousand invalidated,” he said. Duplicate signatures or signatures from people who are not registered to vote must be discarded, he said.

“There is no safe number,” Carey said. “We’re going to get as many signatures as we can up until the deadline.”

Carey said he has been working on the lawsuit for most of year, researching legal precedents

“I just feel that it’s an issue that needs to be resolved,” Carey said. “It might not affect this campaign, but I just do want to do this for the future of petitioning, which I feel is the purest form of democracy in my state.”

Increased privatization of society

Carey said he was unaware of any legal precedent in Maine where an organization sues to allow petitioners.

Carey claims that organizers at the Great Falls Balloon Festival in Lewiston denied or ignored Evergreen’s requests to petition at the event, and that petitioners were not allowed at the Colisee in Lewiston after initially being approved. The Augusta Civic Center and the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center are also named in the affidavit.

Carey states that a petitioner in Portland was charged with obstructing a public way and that the city “has a reputation amongst petition circulators as harsh, threatening and unrelenting on its practice of not allowing petitioning in public places.”

Carey claims that petitioners at the malls and businesses were asked to leave by security or management and that requests to petition had been ignored or denied. He states that petitioners received similar treatment at an Oak Hill High School football game in Wales.

As of Wednesday, Superior Court documents showed that Hannaford, Wal-Mart and Irving Oil had appointed counsel. On Monday, Catherine Connors, representing Hannaford, filed a notice of removal to transfer the action to a federal district court.

John W. McCarthy, representing Wal-Mart, said the action reflects the question of whether the popularity of shopping malls has made them into a public forum. He said the issue is one of property rights and First Amendment rights, and that a judge will consider both the federal and state constitutions in reaching a resolution.

“The law is dynamic, and it’s constantly changing,” McCarthy said.

In seeking a temporary restraining order enjoining the defendants’ policies until Jan. 12, Carey argues that “shopping malls have in essence replaced business districts, and consequently replaced substantial portion of our public forums.”

Carey said it is possible that a judge might make different rulings with regards to the different defendants.

Carey has also requested an expedited hearing to allow petitioners to resume their activities before the January deadline.

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