Republicans seek booth at fair

A local GOP organization has asked the Jackson County Fair board to reconsider a longtime policy banning political booths, claiming it infringes upon the First Amendment right of free speech.

Republican Hands Up, a club made up of county Republicans who perform community projects, hired a Columbus attorney to ask for the change after the fair association denied the club’s request in February to have booth space at the fair in July.

“This violation (is a) violation of the First Amendment right to free association and political expression as well as creates impermissible burden on the exercise of freedom of speech of members of the Jackson County Republican party,” attorney Pete King wrote in a letter addressed to fair board President Mark Norman.

Norman is out of town this week, but fair board Vice President John Schafstall said Friday morning that the board’s executive committee plans to meet Monday night to discuss the request and see if the policy needs to be adjusted.

“They always had that policy,” Schafstall said. Personally, he added, he doesn’t have any issues with political parties renting booth space.

Jackson County might be one of the few fairs in south-central Indiana where political parties are not allowed to have a booth.

Brett Deckard, who is in charge of booth rentals for the Lawrence County Fair near Bedford, said as far as he knows political parties have always been allowed to have a presence at their fair.

“We’ll take anyone as long as they have the $200,” Deckard said.

Bedford Mayor Shawna M. Girgis has rented booth space this year, Deckard said, and both political parties have reserved space. The Lawrence County Fair begins July 18.

Mark Case, a vice president of the Bartholomew County Fair, said Republicans and Democrats set up tents each year.

Case, who manages booth rentals for vendors, said he’s been a board member for 15 years, and political parties have had booths for that long at least.

In the past, Jennings County has allowed political parties to set up shop during that county’s fair. Both groups sell food — the Republicans offering elephant ears, appropriately enough considering that party’s mascot, and the Democrats serve pork tenderloins.

King’s letter was sent after Melissa Acton, chairwoman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, wrote to Norman on Feb. 6, introducing the club and the work it has done for local nonprofits. Zabel provided information about the group’s willingness to provide service work at the fairgrounds from repairs to any labor needed before the fair opens on July 26. The group also would have paid for any materials needed, she added.

She further asked the board to consider a policy change to allow the group to rent booth space during this year’s fair.

“This would be an incredible way for us to connect with people and the greater community,” Acton wrote. “It would let folks know who we are and what we do, and we could also get feedback from people as to other service projects we may be able to implement.”

On June 2, Acton received a written response from Norman denying the request. He referred to the fair association’s bylaws and rules as to why the group cannot have a booth.

“It is a policy that no advertising, canvassing or soliciting for political purposes is to be allowed during the fair,” Norman wrote.

On Monday, King responded on behalf of the group with a second letter telling Norman there is no “legitimate objective and/or factual reason” why the club has been denied, calling it an infringement on members’ constitutional rights.

He and Acton both declined to answer any other questions.

King said the appropriate legal proceedings will take place if the request is not granted by July 6.