Solicitation in a Nutshell

This is a post where I try to describe the law.  That means this is going to be, at best, a semi-coherent approximation of what the law actually says.  I’m not an attorney, so please don’t consider this legal advice.  The standard disclaimer, as always, applies.

I’m seeing a lot of consternation lately about aggressive solicitors, who ignore posted signs and try to sell you magazine subscriptions that never seem to actually show up and household cleansers that appear to be nothing more than some highly-diluted Windex.

Happily, the City of Cottage Grove has a good, strong, court-tested solicitation ordinance.  It defines “solicitation” as:

The entry onto real property used for residential purposes by a person for the purpose of communicating with an occupant of the property, whether the communication is verbal, visual or in writing.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty legalese-thick sentence, so let’s break it down a bit:

  • “The entry onto real property used for residential purposes” means coming to where you live.  It doesn’t cover businesses or parks or churches or anything like that; it only counts if they come to property where someone actually resides.
  • “For the purpose of communicating with an occupant of the property” means just what it says.  There’s no special exception for someone trying to sell you magazines, or telling you how you should vote, or asking for your cans and bottles, or trying to convert you to some religion or other.  If they want to communicate with you, it doesn’t matter what the communication is about (though obviously if they’re just knocking to warn you that your house is on fire or something, the court will probably consider that a pretty good excuse).
  • “Whether the communication is verbal, visual, or in writing” means that if they don’t knock on the door, but leave a pamphlet or door-hanger, that doesn’t matter; it still counts as solicitation.

So that’s what solicitation is.  Now, here are the situations in which solicitation can get somebody into trouble:

  • If they’re soliciting outside the hours of 9 AM to 8 PM (or 9 PM if it’s Daylight Saving Time), that’s a violation.
  • If they’re not soliciting themselves, but they’re directing other people to do so, and those other people are violating these rules, they’re in violation as well.
  • If they leave written materials on your property, and you’ve posted a “sign conforming to the requirements of Section 5.20.040” (we’ll get to that in a moment), that’s a violation.
  • If they personally go and solicit upon property where one of those Section 5.20.040 signs is posted, that’s the big violation.

Any of the first three of the above violations is punishable by a fine of up to $250.  But that last one is punishable by a fine of up to $500, and the violator could also end up spending up to thirty days in jail (there are some definite teeth to this ordinance).

There are three exceptions to the ordinance; these are the situations where people get to do things that fall under the definition of “solicitation” but won’t get in trouble for it.  These are:

  • If the person on your porch is a governmental official of some sort, and they’re doing their job.
  • If you’ve somehow invited this person to be on the property.
  • If it’s between 4 PM and 9 PM on October 31st.  ‘Cause trick-or-treaters generally have no idea what “solicitation” even means, and, unlike most solicitors, there’s no expectation that they would.

So you’re probably asking yourself, “So what sort of sign do I need to do this ‘conforming’ thing so the solicitors will leave me alone?”  Well, it’s pretty easy.  Section 5.20.040 says that it’s gotta be a sign that says, “No Solicitation”.  It’s gotta be on or near the boundaries of your property at the normal points of entrance if you have a fence with a gate or something like that (or at your main entrance if you don’t have a gate), and it’s gotta be big enough and clear enough to be obvious and readable to anyone coming into your gate or up your walk.

That’s it!  That’s all you’ve gotta do, and salesmen, pamphleteers, and petitioners should stop bothering you.  If they don’t, call the police with a description of the violator (what they look like and what they’re wearing) and which way they were going.  Just make sure you’ve got a sign properly posted, or the police won’t be able to do a thing about it.

(As a general rule, I tend to give people who seem honestly ignorant of the law a chance to understand why they can’t do what they’re doing, but sometimes people are pushy and get argumentative about it.  So I went ahead and printed up this Solicitation Ordinance sheet. it’s perfect for double-sided printing, lamination, and keeping near the front door as a handy reference you can use to instantly win arguments about why the person on your porch really needs to knock it off and leave you alone.)

I hope that helps clear things up.  If you’d like to read the text of the law itself, to see where I may have led you astray (I recommend it!), please head over to our Municipal Code and select “Title 5 BUSINESS LICENSES AND REGULATIONS” in the left-hand column.  When that opens up, choose “Chapter 5.20 SOLICITATION” and it’ll appear on the right.  (You can read the rest of our ordinances at that site as well; it’s a handy reference.)

(One last note: I have encountered local members of one particular religious denomination who mistakenly believe that some mysterious Supreme Court case gives them the right to ignore Cottage Grove’s solicitation ordinance.  This is absolutely untrue; it’s nothing more than a conveniently self-serving urban myth.  If anyone tries to tell you that they get to ignore your sign based on some “freedom of religion” case, please invite them to contact me.  I’ll be happy to walk them through the important difference between what they think the Supreme Court said, and what the Supreme Court actually said.)

— Jake