ACLU Claims Free Speech Victory in Texas; Displaying Political Posters is Now Legal

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
July 19, 2000 12:00 am

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ROWLETT, TX — The City Council here last night voted unanimously for a new sign ordinance that eliminates unconstitutional restrictions against political speech by residents in response to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas last summer.

The Rowlett city council has been working with ACLU of Texas for the past year to draft a new sign ordinance to replace one adopted June 1, 1999 despite citizens’ concerns that their rights to free speech would be infringed. The ordinance regulated lawn signs about election candidates and other political or social issues by limiting the size, number of signs per lawn and the number of days they can be displayed.

“From our initial pleas to City Council officials through each step in the process, our objective has never waivered: to have a constitutionally correct sign ordinance in Rowlett that does not infringe on citizens’ right to express political views,” said Ann Kilpatrick, one of four Rowlett residents represented by the ACLU. “Americans must be vigilant against the subtle erosion of our basic liberties — even when public officials attempt to limit those rights under the seemingly innocuous guise of clutter control.”

With this new ordinance, time, place and manner issues of all signs in the City of Rowlett are now treated equally. Restrictions are no longer applied to the content of the message as before. With the removal of the 30-day, pre-election posting restriction, incumbents are no longer favored. “Now residents can actually put “George Bush for President” signs on their front lawns and not be fined for it,” stated Roger Albright, volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Texas.

“I can now display any number of candidates signs on my lawn that I choose, without being subject to a $500 per day fine,” said Don Moore, one of the ACLU plaintiffs.

According to the ACLU, the next step in this process of this federal lawsuit is to file an agreed judgment, which will include the new language in the ordinance to solidify the city’s commitment to protecting its citizens’ First Amendment rights. The ACLU hopes that this ordinance may be used as a model for other municipalities that have troubling language in their sign ordinances affecting citizens’ free speech rights.

“I am very pleased with the new ordinance and believe that it respects the individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States,” said Al Wilkinson, another ACLU plainfiff.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that residential signs have long been an important and distinct form of expression that enjoys the highest level of constitutional protection. At that time, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “with rare exceptions, content discrimination in regulations on the speech of private citizens on private property is presumptively impermissible.”

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