ACLU sues over campaign signs

Balto. Co. restriction violates free speech, organization argues

February 03, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Saying front lawns are "hallowed ground for political free speech," lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit yesterday against Baltimore County government, arguing that a new restriction on when campaign signs may be displayed violates free speech rights.

At issue is an amendment to the county's zoning laws, to go into effect today, that prohibits residents from exhibiting campaign signs on private property earlier than 45 days before a primary election. The regulations also require unsuccessful candidates in primary elections to remove their campaign signs within seven days after the polls close, and all candidates to remove their signs seven days after the general election.

The legislation, which includes a potential $500 fine for violations, was passed by the County Council in December.

"I think this is something many of us do - against the war, in support of a candidate, against a development proposal," said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, adding that the signs "don't cost a lot and tell people that you feel strongly about an issue."

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of three former local candidates and four county residents who wish to place political signs in their yards.

Similar attempts by local governments to restrict the display of political signs have been struck down in federal court, Jeon said.

However, Baltimore County is not the only jurisdiction with such restrictions on political yard signs. Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard governments have similar regulations. State law applies only to signs along roads, according to state elections officials.

Carroll County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender said the government exempts campaign signs from its zoning ordinances concerning the placement of yard signs, specifically to avoid conflicts involving freedom of speech.

But Baltimore County officials said they don't view the sign restrictions as an obstruction to free speech.

"Anyone who wants to express their personal political thoughts, as opposed to a candidate-authorized sign, is free to put up that sign any time they want," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat who initially proposed the changes.

"The signs are an eyesore, they cause visual pollution and they're a public safety hazard," Kamenetz said.

Baltimore County officials deleted most of the restrictions on political signs nearly a decade ago to forestall a federal court challenge to its sign law.

A gubernatorial candidate filed a lawsuit against the county in federal court in 1998 after a supporter was told to remove a campaign sign from his yard. A federal judge preliminarily ruled against the county, saying it couldn't regulate signs based on content, according to articles in The Sun at the time.

Baltimore County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat who served as the council chairman at the time of that lawsuit, said yesterday that he thinks the sign regulations are needed.

"We aren't limiting free speech," he said. "We're limiting how loud you can scream, so to speak. ... We limit all kinds of signs in residential and business areas."

But Clarence W. Bell Jr., a Pikesville resident who ran for county executive as a Republican last year, suggested that the county's law be called the "incumbent protection act," saying current office holders are the ones who stand to benefit from the rules.

Bell, who is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said, "My perception is by the time this law filters out to the general public, it will give the impression that it's illegal in Baltimore County to have political signs in your yard."

Kathleen Cahill, a 50-year-old attorney from Lutherville who is also a plaintiff in the case, said she would like to put up a yard sign for potential presidential candidate Barack Obama as soon as there are signs available.

"It's something citizens can do to participate in the political process - for free," she said.

Jeon, the ACLU attorney, said she thought other jurisdictions would want to monitor the outcome of the lawsuit and make changes accordingly.

"Sometimes these laws are on the books, but they don't get enforced," she said.

Baltimore City prohibits political signs from going up until the day when candidates can no longer withdraw from a race. This year, that cutoff will fall in mid-July. Campaigns must remove the signs within 30 days after the election.

Baltimore's code also requires that the signs be limited to private property.

Campaign signs became an issue for the Baltimore City Council last year when Councilman Robert W. Curran introduced legislation that would have limited the size of political signs to 16 square feet. The proposed ordinance, which remains in committee, came in response to especially large signs used in last year's gubernatorial race.

Harford County has regulations nearly identical to Baltimore County's.

In Howard County, election administrator Betty Nordaas said signs may not go up until 60 days before the election. They must be no larger than 9 square feet in residential areas. But nearly all of the 10 villages in Columbia have slightly different rules about campaign signs.

In Anne Arundel County, zoning laws limit the placement of campaign signs to private property and requires that they be taken down within a week after an election. Primary winners can keep signs up until the conclusion of the general election.

Sun reporters Larry Carson, Laura McCandlish, John Fritze, Mary Gail Hale, Josh Mitchell and Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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