District regulations governing how long signs can remain affixed to city lampposts are unconstitutional and need to be rewritten, a federal judge signaled in a court opinion Thursday.
In a 29-page ruling, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth said city rules may not be fair because they have different time constraints for posters tied to a specific events and those promoting general political speech.
Posters that promote an event — such as the election of a candidate — must be taken down within 30 days of the the event. But that time period can also be open-ended because the event may not be for years. For example, if someone posted a sign advocating the election of a candidate in November 2016, the poster could remain on the lamppost until December of that year.
Posters promoting general political views may only remain on lampposts for 60 total days.
An anti-war group, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, and th e Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation sued the District, calling the regulations unconstitutional. They argued that the rules drew unfair distinctions between different types of speech and would tend to favor speech promoting an event or the election of an official.
In his ruling, Lamberth tossed aside the District’s efforts to have the case dismissed and wrote that it could proceed.
At the end of the opinion, Lamberth took the unusual step of suggesting a fix to cut short further legal proceedings: rewrite the rules.
“The court harbors no preconceived view and will consider the District’s arguments with an open mind,” he wrote. ”But if the Court finds that the regulations restrict expression based on content without furthering a content-neutral purpose, it will have little choice but to conclude that they favor election-related communications over general political advocacy in violation of the First Amendment.
“There is, of course, another alternative to the District’s officials. They can revise the regulations to include a single, across-the-board durational restriction that applies equally to all viewpoints and subject matters.”
“This is a great victory for free speech in the District of Columbia,” said Carl Messineo, Legal Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which represented the two groups in the lawsuit. “The reality is that government officials who run for office and make and enforce the rules give special treatment to their own political speech while punishing grassroots speech.”
Ariel Waldman, senior counsel in the D.C. attorney general’s office, said said officials were reviewing the ruling but declined to comment further.
This item has been updated.