ACLU Challenges Baltimore County Sign Ordinance That Unconstitutionally Restricts Political Speech

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
February 2, 2007 12:00 am

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BALTIMORE – Alarmed that Baltimore County has elected – for the second time in a decade – to waste taxpayer resources trying to restrict the free speech rights of it own residents, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today filed suit seeking to overturn a new county law that unconstitutionally limits when individuals can place political signs on their private property.

Plaintiffs in the case are eight Baltimore County residents – three of whom are past candidates for political office: Clarence Bell, Kathleen Cahill, Joseph Michael Collins, Sr., Ruth Goldstein, Homayoon and Manzar Moghbeli, Noel Levy, and Patricia Visser (see below for plaintiff profiles).

“Like bandits in the night snatching the yard signs of their constituents, the County Council has voted to unconstitutionally limit our free speech rights,” said Clarence Bell, a recently retired Maryland state trooper. “That’s why I’m proud to stand with other county residents from across the political spectrum to demand that our voices be restored.”

The ACLU of Maryland repeatedly urged the County Council to abandon the proposal, detailing the constitutional flaws in the measure. But the council ignored those pleas, forcing the ACLU to take court action. The new law takes effect on Saturday.

A nearly identical Baltimore County law placing durational limits on political yard signs was enjoined as unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in 1998. As a result of the Fourth Circuit ruling, the county rescinded that law, only to reenact a similar law eight years later. Such ordinances repeatedly have been struck down in Maryland and across the country.

“The front lawn has become hallowed ground for political speech in America, offering individuals an easy, inexpensive, and visible opportunity to speak their minds on the issues of the day,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon. “It is mind-boggling that the county would choose to waste taxpayer dollars pursuing a law that, in essence, has already been found unconstitutional by the federal courts.”

The lawsuit charges that the Baltimore County zoning regulation unconstitutionally restricts the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of county residents by preventing them from displaying political campaign signs on their private property. The law restricts the time during which residents may display most political campaign signs to 45 days prior to any primary election, and seven days after the general election. Such provisions are tantamount to a ban on political speech for anywhere from seven to ten months each year.

In addition, such restrictions tend to benefit incumbents in political races, and have a negative effect on the ability of political newcomers to build name recognition.

The residents challenging the ordinance are represented by ACLU cooperating counsel Russell D. Duncan, Kathleen A. Orr, Bridgette Y. Ahn, and Chris Brown, of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and by ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon.

The complaint can be found online at: www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press%202007/BC_Complaint.pdf

The memo in support of the motion for a preliminary injunction can be found online at: www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press%202007/BC_Memo_in_Support_of%20Motion_for_PI.pdf

PLAINTIFFS:

  • Clarence Bell lives in Pikesville and has lived in Baltimore County since 1989. Bell – who retired this week as a Maryland State Police barracks commander – is a Republican who ran for Baltimore County Executive in 2006. Bell anticipates running for office again in the future. In addition, during the last election cycle, Bell had six signs in his yard supporting Republican candidates. Bell intends to place political signs in his yard regularly in future elections.
  • Kathleen Cahill lives in Lutherville. With the exception of her time in college, Cahill has lived in Baltimore County her entire life. Cahill always puts political signs in her yard and wants to put a sign in her yard in support of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in advance of the actual presidential election season. Cahill has never been a political candidate.
  • Joseph Michael (“Mike”) Collins, Sr. lives in Reisterstown and has lived in Baltimore County since 1983. Collins is a Republican who has run for office three times since 2000 – twice unsuccessfully (Maryland House of Delegates and Clerk of Court) and once successfully (Delegate to the Republican National Convention). Although unsure whether he will run for office again, Collins is active in the Republican Party, usually puts five to six signs in his yard supporting Democratic and Republican candidates, and plans to support and work for Democrat Keifer Mitchell in his upcoming campaign for Mayor of Baltimore.
  • Ruth Goldstein lives in Pikesville and has lived in Baltimore County her entire life. Goldstein has worked in various campaigns, including plaintiff Noel Levy’s campaign for the Maryland House of Delegates, and always puts political signs in her yard. Goldstein still has a sign in her yard supporting Martin O’Malley’s campaign for Maryland governor. Goldstein testified against the amendment to the Baltimore County zoning regulations and Baltimore County Code that is at issue now.
  • Homayoon and Manzar Moghbeli live in Hunt Valley. Dr. and Mrs. Moghbeli are Iranian-American immigrants and U.S. citizens who have lived in Baltimore County for more than 23 years. Although they have not done so before, Dr. and Mrs. Moghbeli, who are increasingly following local and national politics, intend to put political signs in their yard in the future.
  • Noel Levy lives in Pikesville and has lived in Baltimore County since 1993. Levy is a Democrat who has run unsuccessfully for office twice since 2000 – once for County Council (in 2002) and once for the Maryland House of Delegates (in 2006). In addition, Levy always puts political signs in his yard. Levy testified against the amendment to the Baltimore County zoning regulations and Baltimore County Code that is at issue now.
  • Patricia Visser lives in Monkton and has lived in Baltimore County since 2001. Visser had a 26-year career with the federal government, during which time she did not post political signs in her yard. After her retirement, Visser began posting political signs in her yard and intends to do so in the future.

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