Court Strikes Down Law Used To Remove Candidate's Political Signs

August 5, 2008 12:00 am

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Ruling in an ACLU case, a federal judge has struck down a state law that was used by the Town of Richmond to repeatedly remove former Congressional candidate Rod Driver’s political signs from private property during the 2006 election. In a 25-page opinion, Judge William Smith agreed with the ACLU that the statute violated Driver’s First Amendment rights.

In August 2006, Driver posted a political sign for his candidacy on the private property of supporters across from the Washington County Fair Grounds in Richmond. The sign was taken down, so Driver replaced it, only to find it removed again on several occasions. When Driver complained to police chief Raymond Driscoll, the chief said he had removed the signs because they violated a state law that bars signs “within the limits of a public highway without first obtaining the written consent of the chief of police.”

The lawsuit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi, argued that the state law cited by Driscoll was unconstitutional by giving him unbridled discretion to decide whether a sign could be posted. Judge Smith agreed. Although the state argued that the statute was premised on safety considerations, the judge noted: “The statute makes no mention of traffic safety, or any other purpose justifying the restrictions, and sets forth no standards based on the characteristics of a proposed sign… The state’s assertion that the statute sets forth clear standards is simply not supported by the plain language of the statute.” He added: “Ultimately, allowing the statute to stand would be an endorsement of a ‘trust me because I am the Chief of Police’ standard,” an argument that the Judge noted has long been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Driver, who is running for a state legislative seat this year, said he hopes to repost signs at the same location. He added: “I thought it outrageous that a police chief could decide who may or may not post political signs, and then tear down those he disapproved of. Now the court has found it is also unconstitutional.” ACLU attorney Sinapi said: “This decision recognizes the dangers to First Amendment values when a public official is given unbridled discretion to decide who may speak and who may not. The danger is particularly acute where, as here, expression essential to the functioning of a democracy – political speech – is involved. Mr. Driver was exercising a basic First Amendment right in posting these signs, and this court ruling, allowing him to continue to do so, is a victory for all Rhode Islanders who value freedom of speech.”

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