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Newark's Public Housing Opens Doors to Free Speech

March 11, 2010

NEWARK - The ACLU-NJ announced a free speech victory yesterday for Newark's political candidates, who will now be able to extend their campaigns within the walls of Newark's public housing complexes.

"The right to engage in political activity is fundamental to American democracy," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Fortunately, candidates in Newark can now exercise their right to campaign freely, and residents of Newark will have the right to tap into the free flow of information."

The Housing Authority drafted a new rule and clarified existing ones after the ACLU-NJ contacted the housing authority expressing concern after hearing reports from City Council hopefuls John Sharpe James, Darrin Sharif and Louis Shockley that the NHA had silenced their constitutionally protected speech.

As in previous years — and as famously documented in the film Street Fight chronicling the candidacy of Newark Mayor Cory Booker — office-seekers reported their thwarted attempts to talk to residents door-to-door and use community rooms for campaign events. One candidate reported that the housing authority forced him to leave an outdoor townhouse complex where he had tried to make contact with voters, shutting residents out of the political process as a result.

After ACLU-NJ prodding, the housing authority confirmed that candidates can now hold political events in apartments' community rooms, discuss campaign issues door-to-door with tenants in townhouse complexes, and accept invitations from public housing residents to speak at political discussions in their homes — under the condition that tenants' associations play no role in the process.

"All I want as a candidate is the right to share my ideas with the residents of Newark, and to then let the residents decide for themselves," said Darrin Sharif, a candidate for Central Ward councilman. "I'm grateful that I can now participate in the democratic process without barriers between me and the people I hope to serve."

The ACLU-NJ has previously challenged numerous Newark policies and actions that infringed on free speech, including: Newark police arresting a newspaper publisher for refusing to turn over photographs the police did not want him to publish, an unconstitutional requirement for people to buy expensive liability insurance before holding marches or demonstrations, and a requirement that anyone distributing leaflets meet the police chief's standards for "good moral character."

In 2008, just as the City Council passed an ordinance firmly ending the insurance requirement, the ACLU-NJ was forced to write another letter to challenge the new ordinance — this time requiring a group of 15 people to secure a permit before gathering or walking down the street. In January 2010, after years of ACLU-NJ advocacy, the City Council finally passed a new ordinance that resolves many of the City's problematic permit policies.

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