Constitution Party of West Virginia wins free speech victory

The Rutherford Institute Wins Court Victory for West Virginia Constitution Party’s Right to Circulate Petitions at a State Park

ELKINS, W.Va. —Judge John Preston Bailey of the Northern District of West Virginia has ruled that a First Amendment lawsuit dealing with the right of a political group to circulate petitions and collect signatures at a state park can move forward. Officials with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages and controls the park, had asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Filed in April 2008 by Rutherford Institute attorneys on behalf of members of the Constitution Party of West Virginia, the lawsuit poses a constitutional challenge to a ban on politics in West Virginia state parks.

“Americans have a First Amendment right to the freedom of political expression,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “We cannot allow the government to silence. We have a right to be heard.”

In September 2007, members of the Constitution Party of West Virginia, a political party committed to electing candidates to all levels of government who will uphold the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, attended a National Hunting and Fishing Day event being held at Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park in Lewis County, West Virginia. Constitution Party officials attended the event in order to circulate petitions and gather signatures supporting the inclusion of their own party candidates on the official state election ballot. In order for candidates for President, Vice President and Governor to be listed on the official ballot issued by the West Virginia Secretary of State in the November 2008 election, West Virginia law requires that petitions with over 14,000 signatures have to be submitted. Constitution Party members did not disrupt the Hunting and Fishing Day event with their signature drive, nor did they cause any member of the public attending the event to complain. Nevertheless, insisting that the signature drive violated Division of Natural Resources (DNR) rules, the park’s superintendent ordered the Constitution Party to cease its activities. Even after being advised by Rutherford Institute attorneys that the party members’ First Amendment rights had been violated, DNR Director Frank Jezioro allegedly refused to provide assurances that petitioning activities would be allowed at parks or events conducted at the parks. In filing suit in U.S. District Court against DNR officials, The Rutherford Institute asked that the Constitution Party’s fundamental rights to political expression and equal treatment under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the West Virginia Constitution be protected.

Contact information: Nisha N. Mohammed, Ph: (434) 978-3888, ext. 604; Mobile: (434) 466-6168

The Rutherford Institute is a nonprofit civil liberties organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional and human rights. Founded in 1982 by John W. Whitehead, the Institute provides legal services at no charge to people whose rights have been threatened or violated.

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