Parts of Lincoln’s political sign ordinance won’t be enforced

Parts of Lincoln’s political sign ordinance won’t be enforced

LINCOLN – As candidates’ yard signs begin popping up around town ahead of September’s special election, residents have begun to question whether Lincoln’s sign ordinance, as written, is unconstitutional.

Under the current ordinance, political signs are not to be put up prior to 30 days before an election.

The candidate campaigning for public office is responsible for posting political signs, and the candidate is responsible for any fees or costs if they violate the ordinance. Political signs are restricted to private property (with the permission of the property owner), and are not allowed on public property.

Further, political signs may not be larger than 9 square feet, with a minimum height of 2 feet.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island recently settled a lawsuit with the town of Portsmouth on behalf of a resident who had been ordered to remove signs from his property. Michael DiPaola argued that the town had infringed upon his right to free speech protected under the First Amendment. The signs posted on his property were not in support of a particular candidate, but rather opining on DiPaola’s ongoing beef with zoning officials.

As a result of the settlement, Portsmouth can’t continue to enforce its ordinance as it’s currently written.

Richard Sinapi, an attorney for the ACLU, called the judge’s decision “an important victory for free speech,” noting that “courts have regularly held that political signs on residential property are a form of unique expression entitled to the highest degree of protection under the First Amendment.”

Though Portsmouth’s zoning regulations regarding yard signs are more stringent than Lincoln’s political sign ordinance, the court case will likely have a ripple effect on other communities across R.I.

Asked how the settlement might impact Lincoln as the town gears up for a special election, Town Solicitor Tony DeSisto said the First Amendment does provide protection for political lawn signs.

The town’s rule that political signs are permitted only 30 days prior to an election “is not allowable under case law, and will not be enforced,” DeSisto said.

Last week, Town Clerk Lillian Silva asked DeSisto to clarify his opinion on the political sign matter for those running for town administrator. His response was forwarded to candidates John Barr, Thomas Paolino, Philip Gould, John Picozzi and John Cullen. Candidate James Spooner was not included, since he does not have an email address, but the clerk told The Breeze she planned to provide him with a physical copy.

DeSisto said by email that issues have arisen “regarding the enforceability of the town’s sign ordinance.”

Temporary signs are permitted in all zoning districts. Political signs can’t be lit up, and must be removed seven days after the election.

Those particular rules, DeSisto said, “are acceptable under the ‘time, place and manner’ test as set forth in case law, and can be enforced.”

There are, however, other parts of the ordinance that DeSisto said wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.

First, political signs may not be larger than 9 square feet and have a minimum height of 2 feet. This size restriction is smaller than the maximum allowed in all zones, he said, including residential zones where signs may be up to 20 square feet in size.

“That restriction would not be upheld in court because it limits the size of a sign based on content, in this case, political speech,” he said.

The second restriction, that no political sign shall be installed prior to 30 days before an election is another that would not be upheld in court according to DeSisto, based on previous cases.

He said Lincoln’s rules that political signs be placed only on private property are acceptable and can be enforced.

“Since the 30-day time limit for the placement of political signs is not allowable under case law, it will not be enforced,” DeSisto told the candidates.

Since receiving the communication from DeSisto, at least one candidate, Philip Gould, has begun installing yard signs around town.

“Being the only candidate in this race who has neither run for nor held a political office, our campaign team needed to hit the ground running,” Gould said. “Once we confirmed the town solicitor’s opinion and made sure that all other candidates had received the same information, we got busy. The requests we have been getting for lawn signs have been overwhelming and humbling.”

Gould said he wanted to ensure the message was shared with his opponents in the race.

One of his opponents, John Barr, told The Breeze he plans to stick to the spirit of the law’s intent, regardless of whether the ordinance is actually enforceable.

Changes to Lincoln’s ordinance may be coming, according to Town Council members, who plan to explore the topic during next week’s meeting. Potential changes to the ordinance would be discussed during a public hearing, when members of the community may offer their opinions.

Barr said he’ll start putting signs out if and when the ordinance is changed. If it’s not updated, he said, he’ll follow the 30-day rule.


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Resident Dean Lees, who served on the Town Council when the ordinance was approved, said it took effect 22 years ago “during a period of strong political turbulence” with no complaints from the public.

At the time, he said political signs were being stolen and destroyed by the dozens every day during election cycles. In addition, he said, the town saw an increase in the use of large plywood signs, “making it harder to distinguish city politics from rural/urban Lincoln.”

Comments

It never ceases to amaze me at the lack of understanding of the 1st Amendment of our political hacks. The government, (yes, that includes you Lincoln hacks,) has no authority or power, to restrict a citizens right to speak and express themselves. Any restrictions, on a persons Free Speech, and expressions of that speech, are un-Constitutional.

It says a lot about Mr Barr's character, and the other candidates who are waiting to put up yard signs, for respecting the spirit of our existing town ordinances.

Far too often, the question asked by politicians is whether something is legal or illegal instead of right or wrong.

Kudos to Mr Barr and others for getting it right by respecting the rules.

What shamrock wrote in the comments is mostly true. There are some limitations to free speech. There is of course the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" example, but that is also in no way related to sign ordinances. It's just one example that Constitutional rights are not absolute.

Anyone who has taken a constitutional law or Intro law school course knows that this ordinance is blatantly unconstitutional. Of all the possible forms of speech, political speech is one of the mostly highly protected. Any limits on political speech are almost always found unconstitutional under strict scrutiny.

Mr. Barr’s position is an interesting one to take. The letter of the law is not always constitutional or morally proper; see any period in U.S. history or global history. While it speaks to his character, it is mildly concerning the lack of questioning coming from Mr. Barr’s campaign on the current ordinance, especially since town officials have already stated portions of the ordinance are unconstitutional and will not be enforced.

As the Council member that drafted this ordinance back in the late 1990's, I'd just like to fill in folks on the rationale behind it. When I got elected in 1997, I was curious as to what we did about signs that got posted under electric company lines, on street corners, in empty lots, etc., so I approached the Town Administrator and he told me there was basically nothing the Town could do to handle these wayward political signs.
I drafted the ordinance in hopes of putting the onus on candidates and already elected officials in hopes they would be more in control of where and when their signs got posted. It also gave the Town some teeth to remove signs that were placed on Town land. (You'd be surprised at the signs that got placed on corners, then seen by other candidates and the next thing you knew 20 signs were in a field. Then again, maybe you wouldn't be surprised.) I was very aware of those towns that say they have a "gentleman's agreement" about signs. Basically that is a way for the incumbents to keep their opponent from garnering name recognition. I am totally against that. THAT is incumbents stifling free speech. While drafting it, I felt 30 days before an election seemed reasonable, but I was happier in the "7 days after election" removal part of the ordinance. How many times do you drive by a sign and say to yourself, "Really? The election was two months ago. Get rid of the sign already." Again, I understand the Portsmouth reasoning. I'm a big fan of free speech. What I was hoping to do was reign in the candidates, not the citizens, and make them more aware of the sight pollution they were doing to the town with their haphazard placement of signs.. And, honestly, I have never agreed with John Barr on anything politically, but good for him for agreeing to the gist of the ordinance.

The council indicated it plans to reassess the ordinace in light of the Portsmouth decision so I am puzzled by Mr Deusch's point about Mr Barr not asking questions.