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Petition signature gatherer sues city


During the past year, 51-year-old Laurie Grooman of Newberg worked as a paid petition signature gatherer for Voice of the Electorate, collecting signatures on various ballot initiatives in cities across the state.

She also was arrested three times in 2012 for refusing to stop collecting signatures in public places in Hillsboro, Happy Valley and Myrtle Point.

Now Grooman is suing the city of Hillsboro in federal court for what she says was a violation of her free-speech rights when she was arrested in mid-May 2012 while trying to gather petition signatures during a public event at Hillsboro Stadium.

Grooman is seeking more than $11 million in damages from the city and three employees who she says violated her First Amendment rights by forcing her to stop collecting signatures even though she was on public property during a public event.

Defendants in the lawsuit include the city of Hillsboro, police officer Daniel Larkins, director of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation Gary Wilson, and another female police officer identified as Jane Doe.

Hillsboro city officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. Barbara Simon, city spokeswoman, says officials will not comment while the issue is in litigation.

No court date has been set for the case.

It’s the first of what could be at least three lawsuits involving officials from cities and counties who tried to stop Grooman from gathering petition signatures. In each of the cases, Grooman’s lawyer says she stood her ground and refused to leave public places even after police or county sheriff’s deputies ordered her to go.

“That’s why she’s been arrested three times, because she stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to leave,’ “ says Portland attorney Ross A. Day, who is representing Grooman in the Dec. 26 federal lawsuit against Hillsboro. (Day helped found Voice of the Electorate Inc. more than two years ago, but left the company to focus on his law practice.)

“My sense in this case is that everyone realizes that what the city did here was wrong, and the question is going to be what the value of the damages will be.”

Grooman was arrested May 12, 2012, as she gathered petition signatures for the inheritance tax initiative that eventually became Ballot Measure 84 during the Portland Running Co.’s “Hippie Chick Half Marathon” at the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex. Day says several other organizations had information booths and advocates for other causes at the event, which was open to the public.

According to the lawsuit, almost immediately after Grooman began circulating petitions Wilson asked her to stop. When she refused, Wilson called police officers, who took Grooman into custody, “humiliating” her and placing her in “the back of a patrol car for nearly 20 minutes without so much as cracking the rear window to allow fresh air” into the vehicle, according to the lawsuit.

“From a demeanor standpoint, she’s your average everyday soccer mom,” Day says. “She’s very, very soft spoken. She’s not confrontational.”

Day says Grooman’s case will hinge on her free-speech rights to gather petition signatures in public places, something the courts have upheld.

“It’s a blatant civil rights violation,” Day says. “What she was doing was engaging in protected speech.”