Judge finds District’s rules for hanging political posters unconstitutional

November 29, 2012

A federal judge on Thursday struck down as unconstitutional the District’s regulations for hanging political signs on the city’s lampposts.

U.S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth’s opinion finds that the rules governing how long signs can be posted in the District violate the First Amendment, and it prevents the city from enforcing the regulations.

In his 58-page decision, Lamberth “lauds the District for opening its lampposts to political messages” but writes that “once the District opens up public property to political speech, it has a responsibility to be fair, even and precise in its regulations.”

At issue is a long-standing battle between the District and a grass-roots organization that was fined tens of thousands of dollars by the city for failing to promptly remove its posters from lampposts and electrical boxes after an anti-war march it advertised in 2007.

Two groups — the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation — argued that the city’s rules unfairly distinguished between different types of speech and initially favored signs promoting the election of individual candidates for public office.

Carl Messineo, legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which represented the organizations, lauded the decision for ending what he called a “pernicious and discriminatory system.”

“There’s now one single standard for posting of political signs that no longer discriminates in favor of lawmakers at the risk of potentially bankrupting those who are grass-roots political activists,” Messineo said.

The city’s regulations had for decades distinguished between signs advertising a specific event and those with a general political message. Event-related signs had to be removed within 30 days, while general signs could remain up for 180 days.

In response to the lawsuit, the District has rewritten its regulations at least four times. City attorneys in the case said the regulations were designed to promote aesthetics and reduce litter, according to court documents.

But Lamberth wrote that the revised regulations still failed to apply a consistent, constitutional standard, in part because of the discretion the language gives to individual city inspectors.

The government “cannot simply allow each officer to independently decide whether certain speech runs afoul of the law. Even if the officers apply the law in good faith – without discriminatory motive or bias – the possibility of inconsistent enforcement can chill speech,” Lamberth wrote.

By striking the section of the regulations related to event-specific signs, the court’s opinion appears to apply an across-the-board time frame of no more than 180 days for all signs.

Ted Gest, a spokesman for the District’s Attorney General, said the government’s lawyers were still reviewing the opinion, and he declined to comment on its implications.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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