OPINION: Police need to learn difference between soliciting and canvassing

OPINION: Police need to learn difference between soliciting and canvassing

Let’s be clear. Canvassing is not soliciting. Still, many remain confused over the difference between the two, including the Phoenix Police Department.

My canvasser, a person of color with a significant developmental disability, was recently stopped when Phoenix police rolled up in two squad cars and detained him for looking “suspicious” and “soliciting.” My canvasser was respectful and complied with every command the officers gave. Regardless, after running his state identification, Phoenix police told him he did not have “an ID for what he was doing” and demanded he leave the area. After the incident, the canvasser was distraught for hours. He has remained anxious about canvassing since the episode, despite the fact he did nothing wrong.

I reported the incident to the Phoenix Police Department and was repeatedly told the canvasser was soliciting. The Phoenix Municipal Code clearly defines a solicitor as a person who goes door to door to speak to residents uninvited for a “commercial purpose”
(§ 23-140); solicitors also require a government-issued identification (§ 23-142). Canvassing is not even remotely commercial. It is used in politics to engage voters at their doors about an election, issue, or candidate. Regardless, even if it was, my canvasser provided his identification and was still told to stop.

If Phoenix’s solicitation laws did include political canvassing, those laws would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment. In Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, the high court struck down an ordinance that lumped in all door-to-door activity with soliciting, finding that “[t]he mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns. It is offensive — not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society[.]”

This incident did not have to happen. The police involved could easily have determined that my canvasser was not soliciting simply by looking at his clipboard with my petition (the petition includes my name and address), my campaign literature (which includes the office telephone number and other contact information), or the application on his phone, which includes the list of registered voter households that he was sent to. The officer, however, did none of this. Instead, without any basis, he ordered the canvasser to cease activity and immediately depart the neighborhood.

There is now more going on in Arizona politics than ever before. Races that were never actively contested are now not just contested, but contested by multiple candidates. Canvassing is an integral part of the democratic process, without which candidates would likely not be able to even get the petition signatures they need to be on the ballot. And that means that voters, some for the first time, will have not just contact, but repeated contact, with candidates. There will be events, door knocks, phone calls, and texts, all done and made to inform Arizonans about the election and to encourage them to participate in it. Needless to say, Phoenix police should not insert itself into this process. No police department should be terminating legal canvassing activity.

I filed a complaint about the incident. In doing so, I asked that Phoenix police educate officers about the difference between political canvassing and solicitation. The persons I spoke to showed no interest in such education. I await a response to the complaint.