Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Steve Mistler firstname.lastname@example.org
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is warning municipalities that local ordinances restricting political lawn signs on private property are unconstitutional.
The civil rights group released a statement Thursday asking towns not to enforce rules limiting use of the longstanding campaign tool, which some people see as a visual blight.
Shenna Bellows, the ACLU's executive director, said her organization had received several complaints from legislative candidates who said towns had ordered them to remove signs from their property or face a penalty.
Judee Meyer, a Republican House candidate, recently received a notice from the town of Alfred ordering her to remove signs promoting her candidacy or face a fine of $100 to $2,500 a day.
Meyer said Thursday that town officials had warned other candidates as well.
"This isn't about whether you're a Republican or a Democrat," she said. "The town is trying to take away our free-speech rights. We all need to stand up and tell them that it's wrong to do that."
The town adopted the ordinance in April. It prohibits residents from erecting political signs on private property until six weeks before Election Day. They must be taken down within a week after Election Day. Lewiston and Farmington have similar ordinances, the ACLU said.
The ACLU said such laws are illegal and violate the First Amendment, and cited several court rulings that support that position.
Municipalities frequently adopt rules about political signs on public property. Many also have rules governing signs on private property. The problem, the ACLU says, is when towns adopt laws that specifically target political speech.
"These ordinances single out the restriction of political speech -- which is unconstitutional," said Alysia Melnick, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maine. "Local governments can't legislatively silence political speech by treating political messages different from other types of signs."
The ACLU has sent a letter to Alfred officials, warning them that the town could face a lawsuit if it continues to enforce the ordinance.
Melnick said Alfred has since agreed to suspend enforcement while it reviews the legality of the rule. Farmington and Lewiston also have agreed to delay their respective crackdowns.
Alfred town officials did not return calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
Gripes about political signs are evergreen, but it's not clear whether this year marks an uptick in ordinances designed to limit their presence. Bellows said her group wanted to remind people that they have the right to display political signs.
She said towns cannot limit the duration a political sign is posted on private property, regardless of whether the election has passed. Towns also can't collect fees, impose unreasonable size limits or treat political signs less favorably than other lawn signs.