Signs of the times

Our view: Signs, signs, everywhere there are political yard signs — but that doesn't mean they must be big enough to overwhelm the landscape

August 12, 2010

Voters must be idiots — at least that seems to be the working assumption of the Great Baltimore Sign Debates of 2010. From city politicians caterwauling over a political sign found in a police official's yard to the legal challenge mounted over Baltimore County's restrictions on such signs, one would assume local voters made choices based solely on who has the biggest and best-placed sign on their block.

Thankfully, there's U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake to inject some sweet reason into the proceedings with her ruling this week that Baltimore County can keep enforcing its limits on the size of temporary signs — political or otherwise — while the lawsuit over the issue is pending in her court.

What Judge Blake points out (and has been pretty obvious all along to all but the most politically partisan county residents) is that the county's restriction is content neutral and gives candidates plenty of opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights. As county residents can currently place as many signs as they'd like for as long as they'd like — as long as they're no bigger than 8 square feet — this hardly ends political free speech as we know it.

Indeed, the judge makes clear that the plaintiff in the case — Stephen V. Kolbe, who posted a behemoth 32-square-foot sign just outside the Baltimore Beltway along Dulaney Valley Road promoting Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor — is unlikely to prevail in his case against the county. The size limit "leaves open sufficient alternatives for communicating a political campaign message to pass the constitutional test," as the judge's order points out.

Underlying the lawsuit seems to be an assumption that enforcement of the law inevitably favors one candidate or another, or perhaps candidates from one political party or another. But county enforcement records don't back that claim. Mr. Ehrlich's sign may have come under scrutiny, but signs for Gov. Martin O'Malley have, too.

Enforcement is uneven only to this extent: It depends on people making complaints to authorities. Unless an oversized sign is reported, no action is taken. But experience suggests there are plenty of eagle-eyed violation spotters on the east side, west side and all around the town to keep both Democrats and Republicans in line.

Why have any size limit? Only the most narcissistic candidates (or perhaps their devoted minions) are likely to ask that question. Most county residents don't care to have their residential streets cluttered with temporary billboards. And it's not just about aesthetics. Oversized signs can distract drivers and make thoroughfares less safe.

Still, this probably isn't the last we'll have to hear about yard signs this political season. Perhaps one will be spotted in the yard of the police commissioner's best friend's aunt. Naturally, the Baltimore County lawsuit lives on — if only because railing against the (choose your favorite complaint: excessive spending, bureaucratic machinations, indifference, heavy hand) of government is such a reliable way to energize supporters.

But it's mostly a lot of sound and fury. The day the biggest sign is determined to lock up an election for a candidate is the day that you'll spot a 40-story one hanging from the Legg Mason Building, and it will be space shuttle astronauts complaining about the distraction from earth's orbit. Let's hope a little of Judge Blake's common sense eventually sinks in first.

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