Court closes book on satellite dish case TV fan's 12-year fight with City Hall is over

June 12, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A top-secret government scientist who longed to watch Spanish bullfights and dirty movies so badly that he waged a 12-year battle with Baltimore officials to place a large satellite dish on his front lawn has lost his final appeal -- this time, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court refused to hear the case of Leon Neufeld, a computer analyst at the National Security Agency who for years has argued that the city violated his First Amendment rights by stopping him from putting a 10-by-9-foot dish on his Mount Washington lawn.

"I guess I'll have to get one of the littler dishes now," said Neufeld, 49, who ran up $100,000 in legal costs fighting City Hall. "The problem is the little dishes don't pull in as many channels. You can't get the bullfights on those."

The large dish that Neufeld hoped to assemble could pull in as many as 200 channels or more, including what he called "exotic programming" -- faraway sporting events and triple-X adult movies from Canada. The smaller dishes are about 18 inches across but only pull in about 50 to 70 channels.

City officials told Neufeld that a large dish violated their "30-foot setback" ordinance, which prohibits city residents from putting most large objects on their front lawns.

"It boils down to the right of a municipality to enforce fair and reasonable regulations to preserve aesthetic beauty and historic charm," said Michael G. Raimondi, a senior city solicitor who has handled the case for the past five years. "I'm glad the case is finally over."

Mount Washington residents complained 12 years ago when Neufeld put up the dish in front of his house on a half-acre wooded lot on Cross Country Boulevard. After 11 fines of $100 each levied against him by indignant city officials, he took the dish down and filed a federal lawsuit in 1987.

The Supreme Court didn't offer any opinion May 28 when it opted to reject the case. In January, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Baltimore officials have the right to "aesthetic" concerns and could therefore regulate how homeowners use their front lawns.

Neufeld's lawyer, William E. Seekford, said he would work out some kind of arrangement with Neufeld about the legal fees.

Neufeld won't discuss his job at the National Security Agency, the government's secret eavesdropping center. But he did say his co-workers have been ribbing him about his crusade.

"I've always thought I had a legitimate First Amendment issue and I thought it was worth fighting for," Neufeld said, sounding somewhat tired of the entire affair. "They've kidded me a lot at work. I've had a lot of requests for bullfighting videotapes."

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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