Political signs have free rein

Laws restricting them have been ruled invalid

June 09, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

State Sen. Andy Harris might not be peppering Maryland's 1st District with campaign signs yet, but the Republican congressional hopeful plans to take advantage of a court ruling that eliminates time limits for candidates' displays on private property.

The Harris signs that sprang up along U.S. 50 on the Eastern Shore during the Memorial Day weekend will probably stay up a while longer with no threat of fines because a U.S. district judge has struck down local laws that restrict the amount of time that campaign literature can be displayed, Harris said. The judge ruled last year that the laws infringe on free speech and thus are unconstitutional.

"This is absolutely great that the court has actually agreed with the Constitution," Harris said. "We will not take this to extremes but will probably put up signs outside the old time windows, which were quite restrictive."

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked several counties and cities in Maryland to immediately stop enforcing laws that restricted sign postings to 45 days before and 15 days after an election. Violators faced fines of up to $500.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said in striking down the Baltimore County law restricting political signs that time limits violate the right to free speech. She recently issued a written opinion on a suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of three former candidates and four Baltimore County residents who wanted to place political signs in their yards.

"A political sign is an important method of expressing support for a candidate," Blake wrote. Many courts "have recognized the importance of official campaign signs and the message they provide" as a form of protected speech, she added.

Deborah A. Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said, "The front lawns and private property of Americans have become hallowed ground for political free speech."

A spokeswoman for Baltimore County said the county is not enforcing the campaign sign restrictions.

"We have had two separate laws regarding political signs in the last few years, and both were struck down," said Ellen Kobler, county spokeswoman. "They are off our books now. We can't and won't enforce them."

Several other counties, including Harford, Howard and Cecil, along with Baltimore and other municipalities, have applied similar time limits before and after elections, prompting the ACLU's request to erase those laws.

"We are urging jurisdictions to consider the repeal," Jeon said. "The fact that such a law is on the books may be chilling to free speech, even if it is not being enforced. In this presidential election year, we feel an urgency to follow up on this ruling."

Courts have repeatedly found that such restrictions violate the First Amendment, Jeon said. Jurisdictions have argued that proliferating signs clutter the landscape and distract motorists, but the right of free speech must take precedent, she said.

"There are legitimate concerns, but those are not sufficient to override free speech, which is paramount," Jeon said.

Harford enacted such a campaign-sign law decades ago, "most likely to limit the proliferation of signs that often lingered long after the campaigns," said Robert B. Thomas, a spokesman for the county.

Nancy L. Giorno, Harford's deputy county attorney, said she could not recall any case in which Harford officers enforced the sign restrictions.

Howard County has not enforced its political sign ordinance recently, said Margaret Ann Nolan, the county attorney, who added that any repeal effort would be up to the County Council.

Michael G. Comeau, chairman of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, said a reasonable regulation is competing against the exercise of free speech.

"I have always despised political signs," Comeau said. "They do nothing for the landscape. In Harford, there is a tidal wave of this eye pollution that certainly does little to influence voters. I doubt anyone will vote for president based on seeing a sign."


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