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Whether you want to hand out flyers promoting your favorite political platform or your latest business venture, you may be wondering if you need to get a permit first. (Or you may be wondering if the person hassling you with a flyer needed or got a permit to do so.) After all, there are all sorts of ordinances regulating posting ads and flyers on poles and street signs, so wouldn't the same be true of handing out coupons and leaflets?
In classic legal fashion, the answer, as always, is: it depends. There are some circumstances, and some cities, that will require a permit to hand out flyers.
Flyers for Business
We all have freedom of speech, even corporations, but commercial speech is generally regulated differently than political speech, especially on public property. While some cities allow any speech in public areas, others may require you to get a permit before handing out advertisements for your business in public spaces.
Cities like Albany, Philadelphia, and San Jose all have strict "handbill distribution" ordinances and require you to apply for a handbill distribution license before you can legally hand out flyers in public. Flyer restrictions and the permitting process can vary depending on where you live, so check with your city government office before handing out business advertisement flyers.
Flyers for Protests
In general, the First Amendment protects an individual's right to free political speech, and the Supreme Court has protected leafletting, handbilling, and the like. But while the government may not censor the content of political speech, it can regulate the time, place, and manner of speech.
Handing out flyers too early, too late, or during rush hour may be prohibited, and a city may ban flyers from courthouses or police stations. Manner restrictions on flyers my limit the amount of flyers you can hand out, or may limit you to only handing flyers to people willing to accept them; meaning leaving piles of flyers unattended or placing them on car windshields could be illegal.
Even though you may not need a permit to hand out political flyers, you should still check with local city, county, or state officials to see if there are other regulations you need to know. You may also want to talk to an experienced civil rights or commercial attorney before you start handing out flyers.