UPDATE: This piece has been updated to reflect a statement from Dauphin County.
A Pennsylvania county will pay $91,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by two residents who were kicked out of a local park for talking about politics, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) announced on Wednesday.
Kevin Gaughen and Dave Kocur sued Dauphin County in January after they were told by security in June 2022 that they could not continue collecting nomination signatures and talking to voters about their new political party at Fort Hunter Park, FIRE reported. The settlement acknowledges that the county’s ban on political expression in the public park violated the First Amendment. (RELATED: University Will Eliminate ‘Free Speech Zones’ After Legal Pressure)
“FIRE is glad this case has finally been resolved in our clients’ favor,” Jeff Zeman, FIRE attorney, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.”From the outset, it was clear that Dauphin County and its Parks director had violated Kevin’s and Dave’s free speech rights by refusing to allow them to engage in political activity in a public park. It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get the County to lift the ban, but that’s what FIRE is here for.”
VICTORY: Today, a federal court ordered Dauphin County, PA, to end its unconstitutional ban on political speech in Fort Hunter Park after FIRE sued in January.https://t.co/wpeoQKuYcu pic.twitter.com/6q6Axci64s
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) April 26, 2023
The $91,000 payment is “relatively modest compared with the cost of continuing this litigation,” Stephen Libhart, Dauphin County Commissioners Deputy Chief Clerk/Chief of Staff, told the DCNF. It “allows the county to move forward without protracted litigation, saving taxpayers from a potentially costly and lengthy court battle.”
“This victory isn’t just a victory for Dave and me, it’s a victory for everyone in Dauphin County,” Gaughen said in FIRE’s announcement. “When the county government wouldn’t back down, FIRE sued on our behalf. It was very reassuring to have FIRE in our corner.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a legal demand letter sent by FIRE to county officials in October 2022 requesting they drop the ban on political speech. The county responded that the restriction was applied within reasonable time, place and manner limitations.
“It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit for Dauphin County to open their parks to political activity,” Conor Fitzpatrick, FIRE attorney, said in the announcement. “Thanks to Kevin and Dave, Pennsylvanians can now talk politics in Fort Hunter Park without fear of government censorship.”
Kocur was a candidate for Pennsylvania House District 104 under the Keystone Party of PA, of which Gaughen is a board member, according to FIRE. The party seeks “to create a culture of positive policy change with workable solutions that solve real world problems” through “electing honest and reasonable candidates, who support a small, effective, and efficient government,” its website reads.
“The order the Court entered today prohibits Dauphin County from banning political activity in Fort Hunter Park, and the order is expressly intended to benefit the public,” Zeman told the DCNF. “Therefore Dave and Kevin, as well as future candidates and their supporters, will all be free to petition for ballot signatures or talk about political issues to members of the public in the park.”
Dauphin County “remains committed to operating its public parks and other public properties in a manner that is both constitutional and respectful of Dauphin County’s rich history,” Libhart told the DCNF.
“That balance was evident in this case, as the county strove to adhere to the express wishes of the family that donated Fort Hunter Park in 1980 for the benefit of the residents of Dauphin County in perpetuity,” he continued.
Fort Hunter Park did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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