San Antonio, TX – Two civil rights groups asked a federal judge today to block an order adopted last month by Starr County, Texas banning political advocacy on county-owned property.
MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and TCRP (Texas Civil Rights Project) are seeking a temporary restraining order to block the rule, adopted by the Commissioners Court of Starr County on Jan. 8, 2018, prohibiting “electioneering” during voting on properties owned or operated by the county including, but not limited to, the county courthouse, libraries, fire stations, community centers, parks, and government offices.
The TRO application, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, McAllen Division, asks the court to block Starr County from implementing the ban during the 2018 election cycle. Early voting for primary elections began on Tuesday.
MALDEF and TCRP filed a lawsuit late yesterday asking the court to strike down the rule on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment and Texas state law.
“Starr County’s election-season ban of political speech on county property is an affront to the democratic process and to residents’ First Amendment rights to advocate for the candidates and issues they care about most,” said Celina Moreno, MALDEF’s Interim Southwest Regional Counsel. “Elected officials should champion, not criminalize, long-held traditions of civic engagement.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Starr County residents — a Republican and a Democrat — each of whom has a long history of civic engagement and who wish to engage in electioneering efforts such as distributing literature, displaying car bumper stickers, advocating for candidates, displaying signs, wearing campaign t-shirts, and engage in other similar activities in advance of Primary Election Day, March 6. Texas state law restricts electioneering within 100 feet of polling places, but the Starr County order covers all properties owned by the County, including locations not designated as polling sites.
The plaintiffs are Rosbell Barrera, Chairman of the Starr County Republican Party, and Hilda Gonzalez Garza, a Democratic Party activist who has served as a poll watcher and a volunteer in several campaigns. Both sent letters to Starr County officials asking questions about the ban, which was enacted by the Commissioners Court without public comment. Neither received a response.
The Commissioners Court order states that violations of the ban will be prosecuted as misdemeanor criminal trespass, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to six months in jail for each violation. The lawsuit alleges that the ban abridges political speech in violation of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, and runs counter to a provision of the Texas Election Code that allows electioneering anywhere beyond 100 feet of a polling place.
“For democracy to thrive in Texas and in our country, all of us must have an equal and open opportunity to participate in the electoral process — indeed, our rights to do so are protected by the First Amendment. When Starr County Commissioners adopted a blanket ban on ‘electioneering’ on county property, they improperly sought to silence Texas voices in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Election Code,” said Mimi Marziani, President of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Our lawsuit seeks to correct this immediately and restore the primacy of free and diverse political speech during this critical election cycle.”
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Starr County and the local officials responsible for adopting and enforcing the electioneering ban: District Attorney Omar Escobar, County Attorney Victor Canales Jr., County Judge Eloy Vera, County Sheriff Rene “Orta” Fuentes, and County Commissioners Jaime Alvarez, Raul Peña III, Eloy Garza, and Ruben D. Saenz.