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    Law pleases 'No Soliciting' champ

    An anti-soliciting champion finds that an ordinance he pushed in Clearwater is backed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 22, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- Dave Campbell stands on the brown tile stoop of his Spanish-style house and points to the "No Soliciting" sign on his screen door.

    "That's a sign that works," he says.

    Since 1995, Campbell has been an evangelist for "No Soliciting" signs in his Grovewood subdivision, an aging but solidly middle-class suburban neighborhood.

    Bugged by repeated visits from Jehovah's Witnesses, Campbell pushed for the 1995 Clearwater ordinance that gives "No Soliciting" signs the force of law. Solicitors who knock anyway can be charged with a misdemeanor.

    So Campbell was especially pleased when he heard about Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said such ordinances offer "ample protection" of property owners' rights against the free-speech rights of door-to-door canvassers.

    In the same case, the court struck down as unconstitutional a small Ohio town's requirement that all canvassers register with the city before banging on doors.

    In the Tampa Bay area, Temple Terrace requires solicitors and canvassers to get a free permit, but it exempts people from organizations with a nonprofit tax status. Officials there are reviewing the ordinance in light of the Supreme Court decision.

    Other governments said the ruling changes nothing. Tampa and Hillsborough County have no door-to-door solicitation ordinance. Pasco County ordinances do not cover volunteer solicitors, but solicitors hired by charities need a permit.

    St. Petersburg's ordinance does not place restrictions on non-commercial solicitors; commercial solicitors need peddlers' permits.

    "We looked at it, and I don't think it's going to affect us," St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe said of Monday's ruling.

    For decades, Jehovah's Witnesses have been at the center of court cases that strike the balance between property owners' privacy and safety and the rights of people to spread their ideas door to door.

    They challenged the Ohio permit requirement all the way to the Supreme Court.

    Robert Mackey, overseer of Tampa for the church, said going to homes to seek new believers is central to the faith.

    He said the church does not oppose "No Soliciting" sign ordinances, and that its members respect the signs even where no city law backs them.

    "They usually just refrain from knocking," Mackey said. "When there is a sign saying 'No Jehovah's Witnesses,' we mark it down and it's incorporated into our information about the territory."

    Campbell, who is retired but declines to disclose his age, said the Jehovah's Witnesses who used to visit him were not as accommodating.

    "Every six weeks or every three weeks, they would unload a pack of Jehovah's Witnesses, good looking people in suits or whatever," Campbell remembers. "Every time they would come, we'd tell them, 'We don't like the intrusion, please mark us off your list.' But this went on and on and on again."

    After the Clearwater City Council passed the ordinance, Campbell bought a stack of "No Soliciting" signs and handed them out to his neighbors. He has a diagram of the neighborhood, labeled with each homeowner's phone number and whether they posted a sign. More than half of the homes put up a sign, he said.

    There was one more visit from Jehovah's Witnesses. Police charged one with violating the ordinance. The charge was dropped on a technicality, but Campbell says they haven't been back.

    In fact, with a "critical mass" of homes off limits, most solicitors find Grovewood so unproductive that they bypass it entirely, Campbell says.

    For the occasional stray doorbell ringer, Campbell has a whole spiel.

    "I say, 'Can you wait a minute?"' he says. "That catches them off guard. I go and get a couple copies of this," Clearwater Code of Ordinances Section 21.16.

    "One is for him, and one is for his boss," Campbell says with a grin.

    -- Times staff writers Tamara Lush and Matthew Waite contributed to this story.

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