By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008
FINCASTLE, Va. -- In a rural patch of southwestern Virginia, where pink, flowering redbud trees fill a vast valley tucked between two mountain ranges, local leaders consider political signs clutter.
So when a U.S. House candidate began peppering the area with red, white and blue signs a year before the Nov. 6 election, Botetourt County officials took notice. They dusted off a long-standing ordinance restricting the length of time that campaign signs can be erected, even on private property.
Opponents of the law fought back, saying the restrictions violated free speech protections outlined in the First Amendment. They contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which threatened to sue.
"Censoring the timing of expression can undermine free speech just as much as censoring content," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "We are entering a particularly active political season in which many voters in Botetourt will want to express their support for political candidates through campaign signs. They should be able to do so without fear of reprisal."
In recent years, similar controversies about the visual pollution of campaign signs have erupted in all corners of the state, from Fairfax County and Culpeper in the north to Farmville and Bedford County in central Virginia and Norton and Big Stone Gap in the far southwest.
Last fall, Fairfax supervisors voted to add cracking down on political signs to their list of priorities for this year. The county attorney has started to research a proposal to limit signs to 30 days before an election, but the board has yet to discuss it.
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said he knows there might be First Amendment problems, but he said he needed to do something to respond to the complaints. "People just really hate it," he said. "A huge part of it is clutter."
In most places across Virginia, officials backed off after lawsuits were threatened. In Botetourt (pronounced BAHT-uh-tott), the Board of Supervisors agreed not to enforce the existing sign law and to repeal it. But some supervisors want to ask Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) to weigh in on the dispute and to rewrite the law in a way they hope will pass constitutional muster.
Board Chairman Don A. Assaid said that he feels "politically intimidated" by the ACLU, calling it the most "un-American organization" he knows, and that he still wants to do something to address residents' complaints. "There are no absolute rights in the Constitution," he said.
In the 1990s, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri resident's right to display a large sign opposing the Persian Gulf War in her yard. Since then, several lower courts have rejected attempts to place time restrictions on political signs. That includes a 1999 decision by a Maryland federal district court that invalidated a Prince George's County sign ordinance.
"There are a lot of laws on the books," said David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University who has studied and written about the issue. "But most lower courts have viewed such laws with skepticism."
In 2004, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law protecting the rights of residents to post campaign signs on their property for however long they choose. The ACLU of Virginia followed up with a letter to officials in all 323 towns, cities and counties in the state, urging them not to enforce existing restrictions or adopt new ones. Local governments are able to regulate certain aspects of signs, including size, shape and number, Hudson said.
In Botetourt, the recent argument that began with a desire to protect a picturesque part of the state quickly erupted into a partisan dispute and then a larger question about the balance between a person's constitutional rights and a government's ability to makes rules for the benefit of the entire community.
"If we don't have some semblance of order, we'd just have a libertarian society where anything goes," said Jim Crosby, a longtime resident and former chairman of the Botetourt Republican Party.
Botetourt is home to nearly 33,000 people, a mix of retirees, cattle farmers and professionals, some of whom commute to nearby Roanoke. With 22,000 registered voters and turnouts as high as 60 percent on Election Day, the county has a politically active population, roughly 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat.
Since the 1970s, the county has had a law restricting temporary signs as part of an effort to maintain the beauty of the sprawling county situated between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. In 2002, officials added language to restrict signs to 60 days before an election and 15 days after an election.
Botetourt officials say they have never enforced the sign ordinance because they have never had to. Residents, they say, know the law.
Last year, Sam Rasoul, a 26-year-old businessman seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), began asking residents whether they would display his signs outside their homes or businesses or on their farms or plots of undeveloped land.
"It is beautiful, hard to argue with that," Rasoul said, "but we're talking about a handful of signs."