Campaign challenges political sign law Rehrmann camp to appeal on free-speech grounds

July 15, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The squabble over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eileen M. Rehrmann's campaign signs on U.S. 40 West heated up again yesterday, as campaign officials criticized as unconstitutional a Baltimore County law that bans signs so early in the election season.

Rehrmann campaign attorney Paul Mark Sandler said he will seek a federal court injunction to stop enforcement of the law -- even though a county hearing officer said he might dismiss $9,400 in fines against the campaign because it does not own the land where the signs are located and did not authorize them.

Both developments occurred at a brief hearing in Towson that included testimony from Rehrmann's campaign manager, Larry S. Gibson, and Sandler.

Baltimore County law prohibits campaign signs on private property until 30 days before an election, or Aug. 9 this year.

The dispute between the county and the Rehrmann campaign involves two large signs, attached to thick wooden poles, on a residential lawn where Lincoln Avenue meets U.S. 40 just outside the Baltimore Beltway.

The signs have been taken down twice, inspectors say, once at their request and once by the State Highway Administration.

But new signs have gone up, higher than ever on the land, which is owned by Laurel contractor and political activist Robert Clay Sr., who faces county citations worth $2,800 in fines. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 25.

The county originally assessed fines against the Rehrmann campaign. But yesterday, hearing officer Stanley J. Schapiro said he is likely to drop the charges, alluding to arguments that the Rehrmann campaign should not be liable because it does not own the land and asked Clay to remove the signs. Clay has refused, and Schapiro said he will announce his decision after the Aug. 25 hearing.

Gibson and Sandler said they will seek a federal court injunction to stop the county from enforcing the law. Sandler argued that similar laws have been struck down by courts around the country in the past few years.

"We're simply seeking to protect the right of free speech," he told Schapiro.

In written arguments yesterday, Sandler argued that the law amounts to a ban on signs based on their content. He argued the law serves no "compelling state interest," because the county permits other kinds of signs.

Gibson -- who told Schapiro that he has repeatedly asked that the signs be removed -- said "these laws were taken to protect incumbents. It takes the little person out of the game" because incumbents have name recognition.

But Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said the county will "vigorously defend" the law.

"The public doesn't want these signs all over the place. They're litter," he said. "The county government has a right to reasonably regulate freedom of speech."

The State Highway Administration also might get involved in the dispute, if the Rehrmann signs are on state right of way.

Spokeswoman Rita Chappelle said a state maintenance crew removed the signs, but new ones were put up. She said a survey crew will be assigned to determine who controls the land.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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