Lawyer says Balto. Co. political sign rules chilling free speech

Federal court hears First Amendment debate that began with a large Ehrlich sign

August 06, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

A lawyer representing the Towson man who was ordered to remove a campaign sign for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from his front lawn argued in federal court Friday that Baltimore County's rules on such signs are "chilling the political debate."

In hopes of winning a court order to halt county enforcement of the regulations, Michael J. Pappas told U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake that the county's rules governing the size and location of political signs overstep what is necessary to maintain public safety and attractive streets. The county, he argued, is "using a broad brush" that mars free-speech rights during elections, which he called the "cornerstone of our democracy."

James Nolan, a lawyer in the county's Office of Law, argued that within the existing limits, there's plenty of leeway for expressing political opinion on signs.

"If you went out to Baltimore County today you would not think there was any curtailment of First Amendment rights," Nolan said. "The signs are everywhere."

On behalf of Stephen V. Kolbe, Pappas asked Blake for a preliminary injunction to bar enforcement until the constitutional questions he's raising can be resolved in a full trial. Blake concluded the hearing after about 90 minutes, saying she would issue a decision on the injunction next week.

While the case is being decided, the county will respond to complaints about political signs only by opening a file on the complaint and taking photographs, but not issuing notices of violations.

Kolbe ran afoul of county regulations by putting up a 32-square- foot Ehrlich sign in early May on his front lawn at Dulaney Valley and Saint Francis roads. Regulations for that residential zone limit signs to 8 square feet.

Kolbe filed suit less than three weeks later, alleging that the regulations violate his constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. His original complaint contended that because political signs up to 50 square feet are allowed on "unimproved" lots, the law effectively gives the owners of vacant land greater political speech rights than homeowners, whose lots would be considered "improved."

Nolan argued that the sign caused a public safety hazard, as it blocked the view of a driver turning left from Saint Francis Road onto Dulaney Valley Road. A smaller sign would not create that risk, he said, adding that the county has to exercise "legislative judgment" to control signs.

"Someone could put up a 100-square-foot sign," Nolan said. "At what point do you put a stop to that? I think we're beyond the point in our society when people can do whatever they want."

Asked after the hearing why he doesn't put the Ehrlich sign back up during the enforcement moratorium, Kolbe said he was concerned about penalties that might be imposed later.

"I'm not a lawbreaker," said Kolbe, who runs an information technology consulting business out of his house. "I may disagree with it, but I'm not going to violate the law."

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