Earlier this month, the Asheville Police Department arrested Helen Roberts for passing out fliers as part of Occupy Asheville, claiming it violated a city ordinance. The charges against Roberts have since been dropped, and City Attorney Bob Oast tells Xpress that the ordinance she was arrested under only deals with commercial activity — not handing out political fliers in public spaces.
Following review of video surveillance from a Nov. 2 Occupy Asheville march, the APD issued a warrant for Roberts’ arrest based on an alleged violation of a city of Asheville ordinance that reads as follows:
It shall be unlawful for any person to advertise by the distribution of samples or printed matter within the city, except as provided in the annual license and privilege tax ordinance.
However, the charges were dropped soon after the arrest. When asked about the case, APD spokesperson Lt. Wally Welch later wrote to Xpress that “the APD Command Staff and City Legal conferred with DA Ron Moore reference her charges; and based on his interpretation of the City Ordinance the decision was made to dismiss the charges against her.”
So what does the ordinance prohibit?
“The annual license and privilege tax ordinance was adopted a number of years ago. What that is really directed at is the distribution of product samples,” Oast explains. “What’s the city’s privilege license tax ordinance says is that every person, firm or corporation distributing samples, circulars, handbills or other printed matter from house to house or person to person anywhere within the corporate limits of the city of Asheville will have to pay a license tax.
“So it’s really directed at commercial activity,” not political activity, Oast concludes.
Above the local level, the U.S. Supreme Court, in cases like Lovell v. City of Griffin and Hague v. CIO has generally upheld broad protections for citizens and groups distributing leaflets in traditional public forums, like public squares or sidewalks.