June 16, 2010

State publishes new rules for campaigning at transit stations

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By Andy Rosen

The state is proposing to relax its rules on political activity at transit stations, a move designed to help settle a three-year legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union and ACORN that stemmed from the 2006 campaign.

The regulatory change, published for public comment on a state website, eliminates the requirement that groups get permits for “free speech activity” at Maryland Transit Administration facilities. The regulations apply to things like political organizing and demonstrations.

The state hopes the new requirements put the lawsuit to rest, but the MTA still doesn’t have the cash it needs to pay court costs for the ACLU and ACORN.

The permitting requirements became an issue as ACORN organizers attempting to register low-income voters in the run-up to the 2006 election were turned away from train and bus stations. The ACLU got involved in the issue, because it perceived the ban as a threat to First Amendment rights.

Under the new rules, organizers or protesters are required to notify the MTA a week ahead of their arrival at a station. The agency’s approval is not required. Such activity continues to be barred on trains, buses and other vehicles, and the state reserves the right to suspend permissions ahead of time.

The MTA says all “substantive” issues with the case will be resolved with the new regulations, but the two sides continue to battle in court over $60,000 in legal fees that the state’s Board of Public Works refused to pay to the plaintiffs in March.

An ACLU spokeswoman said the organization is still reviewing the new rules.

The money would have paid for legal fees the organizations say they racked up in a challenge to the rule. The O’Malley administration stopped enforcing it after the governor took office.

A U.S. District Court judge decided not to order the state to stop using the regulations because the administration had already halted enforcement. But the judge did grant nominal damages of $1 to each plaintiff.

Attorney General Doug Gansler had advised the BPW, which consists of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, that the settlement was in the interest of the state. But that document has not been made public, as lawyers cited attorney-client privilege.