When political lawn signs shout too loudly
The size of the political message has become an issue, pitting freedom of speech vs. local codes.
In this manufacturing hub 25 miles north of Boston, controversy is growing by the square foot.Skip to next paragraph
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That's because Lawrence bans political signs larger than six square feet. And in the last few weeks, the city has issued citations for some 30 campaign signs – each measuring 32 square feet – that supporters of state Rep. William Lantigua (D) placed on their private property. Representative Lantigua believes the ordinance violates freedom of speech, and has approached residents who received citations about challenging the law in court.
From Highlands, N.C., to Hawthorne, N.J., local ordinances governing political signs seem to be attracting legal scrutiny more frequently these days. At press time, Hawthorne's borough council was expected to vote on a settlement with the ACLU regarding the topic, according to ACLU-NJ deputy legal director Jeanne LoCicero. The agreement would require Hawthorne to repeal or amend a law restricting homeowners from displaying political signs more than 32 days before an election or seven days after.
In a twist on the Hawthorne case, the dispute in Lawrence revolves around dimensional rather than durational limits on political signage.
Lantigua has taken down a few signs.
Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the intersection between political and commercial advertising, the threat political expression poses to community well-being, and the role a sign's dimensions play in conveying political messages.
"If you have more onerous restrictions on political signs than on advertising, the argument is that political signs are being discriminated against," says David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "But the case law is not uniform, and it's enough of a muddled area that each side will have some fodder to fire off if it goes to litigation."
The city is justified in treating political and commercial advertising differently because political signs appear in residential neighborhoods while commercial signs are confined to the business district and must gain approval from a local planning board, says Myles Burke, Lawrence's commissioner of inspectional services.
Opponents of the law should take their grievances to city council and comply with the ordinance in the run-up to the Sept. 16 primary between Lantigua and his opponent, Marcos Devers, rather than look for a test case to launch a court challenge, Mr. Burke adds.
"Challenges and changing of the ordinance should come first before violations," he says. "You're putting a lot of supporters and individual owners of property at risk of some serious [$1,000-a-day] fines if the court and judge see it our way."
Though the debate in Lawrence was touched off when a member of Mr. Devers's campaign complained that Lantigua's signs were oversized, Burke's office has recently changed its approach and begun issuing citations – including a couple for Devers signs - based on violations of the state building code rather than size restrictions; according to city rules, people installing any sign larger than eight square feet on buildings must obtain a permit in the interest of public safety.