Wyoming Liberty Group
Handbills Are Free Speech Too
Courts repeatedly strike down City Ordinances that violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. This is true even when cities try to justify censorship as a way to improve aesthetics, or fight litter. Even in Wyoming cities are willing to trample on free speech rights. As recently as 2013, the City of Cheyenne had to pay litigation costs in its futile attempt to censor political speech by its ham-fisted regulation of yard signs. The City of Laramie quickly repealed its own political yard sign regulations shortly thereafter.
Now the Cheyenne City Council is flirting with censorship again. This time, the City is going after handbills (also known as fliers or leaflets) that people place under automobile windshield wipers. Like political signs, handbills are a time-honored and inexpensive way to spread political, religious and commercial messages. So even if some people are annoyed by this form of communication, handbills are a constitutionally protected form of speech.
The Wyoming Supreme Court rejected one city’s argument that anti-littering laws justify limits on free speech. When the City of Laramie tried to fine someone under the city’s litter ordinance for distributing a free newspaper door-to-door to all residents of the city without requiring a subscription, the Court said Laramie’s law was unconstitutional. The court decided that Laramie could not “place a complete ban on speech…if that speech is in a form which may eventually be viewed as litter.” The court also said, “Miller is entitled to have his right of free speech not curtailed by an ordinance designed solely to prevent littering.”
The constitution’s protection of speech exists to protect unpopular and unwelcome speech. Popular speech that most people want to hear is protected, in part, by majority rule. However, the constitution exists to protect minority rights from tyranny of the majority. This is true at both the federal level and in Wyoming’s cities and towns.
Wyoming cities and towns need to get out of the censorship business. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution clearly state that government cannot censor speech—especially if the means used might burden political, religious, or other noncommercial speech. Prohibiting handbills, leaflets, and fliers under automobile windshield wipers is exactly the kind of law that both constitutions prohibit. Cheyenne’s city council needs to return its focus to repealing nitpicky regulations and looking for ways to trim the budget.
This renewed attempt to limit free speech in Cheyenne is unconstitutional, counterproductive, and as recent history has shown, potentially expensive.