FARMINGTON — A policy banning political activity on town property was unanimously rescinded by the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday.

Town Manager Richard Davis recommended the board rescind the policy, which prohibited petitioning, signature-gathering and placing campaign signs on town property, except as allowed by state law at the Community Center on election days.

Davis wrote the policy two weeks ago after receiving complaints from members of the Old Crow Band and others about a person seeking petition signatures during their Monday night concert in Meetinghouse Park.
The board enacted the policy to protect the right of people to gather and enjoy concerts in the park this summer.

The policy was put on hold after concerns were raised about freedom of
speech. Davis sought a legal opinion from the Maine Municipal
Association.

Richard Flewelling, assistant director of Legal Services for the MMA, advised the board to rescind the policy.
“The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, especially political expression, including the circulation of petitions,” Flewelling wrote in a letter to Davis. “This right has long been held to be a fundamental right. Any governmental restrictions on the exercise of free speech are subject to strict judicial scrutiny, upheld only if narrowly tailored to accomplish a compelling governmental interest, such as protecting public health or safety.” 

The board also received a letter from Arnold Clark, director of the Center for Constitutional Law at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, who noted the policy interfered with Farmington residents’ “many fundamental rights protected by the Declaration of Rights in the Maine Constitution.”
The people’s right to speak freely, to assemble and to petition the government are protected, Clark said in the letter, but he was most concerned with the “targeting of the collection of petition signatures. The Maine Constitution specifically sets forth the constitutional right of Maine people to collect signatures for petitions as part of the referendum process and the direct initiative process,” he wrote, urging the board to repeal the policy.
 Davis took responsibility for the policy and apologized to the board and those involved.
“I blew it big-time on this issue,” he said. “I overreacted to the complaints and made an error in judgment.”

Board Chairman Stephan Bunker responded that the action was taken by the full board. In dealing with public policy over his years on the board, he said, he’s learned that for every action there are consequences. It was a decision made while trying to balance the rights of petitioners against the right of others to gather for entertainment, he said.

Selectman Dennis Pike said there are many opportunities and spaces for political activity, but he urged residents to use consideration and respect in doing so.

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