County plans quick change of campaign sign rules Law likely violates Constitution, judge finds

July 30, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County officials are planning a quick revision of the county law regulating political campaign signs in the wake of a federal appeals court judge's opinion Tuesday that the law is probably unconstitutional.

A bill changing the county law -- which was challenged in federal court by a supporter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eileen M. Rehrmann -- could be introduced at Monday night's County Council meeting, officials say.

Officials say that if they quickly change the law, which prohibits campaign signs on private property until 30 days before an election, that could prevent a formal ruling declaring it unconstitutional.

"I don't want to violate the Constitution," said council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

Baltimore County's law is the strictest in the Baltimore area, though Harford County -- where Rehrmann is county executive -- is close behind, restricting signs to 45 days before an election.

Neither Carroll County nor the state regulates the placement of signs on private property, officials said. Other jurisdictions allow signs from 60 days to six months before an election. Baltimore County officials say they merely want to prevent litter and visual clutter.

But Rehrmann campaign manager Larry S. Gibson has charged that the law protects incumbents, who already enjoy name recognition with voters.

No challenge in Harford

George Harrison, spokesman for the Rehrmann campaign, said she has not challenged the 45-day rule on campaign signs in her home county, and he sees no contradiction in her challenging Baltimore County's law.

"In the case of Baltimore County, it was a private citizen who put the sign up," Harrison said, referring to Robert Clay, a Laurel contractor who erected two large "Rehrmann for Governor" billboards on the lawn of a home he owns at Lincoln Avenue and U.S. 40 West in Catonsville.

But Moxley questioned why the Rehrmann campaign "would make Baltimore County's law the point of their lawsuit when their law is very similar. I wonder if it's an intentional slap toward officials here, though I respect Rehrmann."

In his eight-page opinion reversing a lower court ruling, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. granted an injunction against enforcement of Baltimore County's law.

The law's provisions "are content-based regulations of speech, and therefore will be subjected to strict scrutiny, which they likely cannot survive," he stated.

Later, the judge suggested "the county could regulate the design and condition of all signs. Or the county could prevent the posting of signs within a reasonable distance of the street," but it can't ban signs because of their content -- political messages.

The ruling means that between now and Aug. 15, when the signs become legal, "we are barred from enforcing our law," said Virginia W. Barnhart, a Baltimore County attorney.

Both sides now have several weeks to submit written arguments to the full U.S. Court of Appeals.

Supporter feared fines

Paul Mark Sandler, the attorney representing Warren Taylor, a Rehrmann supporter who wants to put a lawn sign in front of his Lochearn home, said Taylor feared being fined by the county. Sandler also represented the Rehrmann campaign and defended Clay before a county hearing officer.

"What's at issue is the entire system of democracy," said Sandler of restrictions on campaign signs.

As for whether Harford County's law would be unconstitutional, Sandler said, "In my judgment it would be, but that is just one person's view."

Pub Date: 7/30/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.