Lewiston ordinance restricting political signs unconstitutional?

7:28 PM, Sep 12, 2012   |    comments
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LEWISTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Lewiston officials are acknowledging that the enforcement of an ordinance limiting political signs on private property could violate resident's First Amendment rights.

The admission comes after Tim Lajoie, a Lewiston resident and the Republican candidate for Maine House District 74, challenged city officials last week.

Lajoie said he had his neighbor's permission to place his political signs on private property, but Lewiston officials told him he had to take them down.

He said they explained a city ordinance prohibited political signs on private property until six weeks before the election.

This year, that date would be September 25.

Lajoie's instinct told him this enforcement was unconstitutional, so he started to research ordinances and applicable case law.

The Lewiston ordinance states in part:
"Signs of temporary nature bearing political messages...may be placed within or outside the public right-of-way of any street or highway in accordance with the timelines established in M.R.S.A. Title 23."

That state law, M.R.S.A. Title 23, has a timeline established for political signs in public places, but not private property.

It states: "[Political signs] may be erected within Right of Way limits of public ways no sooner than six weeks prior to an election," and "[Political signs] may be erected on private property outside the Right of Way limits of public ways at an time prior to an election."

The law goes on to state that stricter municipal ordinances take precedence.

Lajoie researched Supreme Court cases, such as City of Ladue v. Gilleo, which upheld a citizen's right to free speech on private property, and determined that Lewiston city officials were violating First Amendment Rights by restricting political signs on private property.

"First Amendment rights are sacred in this country, and I am surprised the ordinance hasn't been scrutinized until this point," said Lajoie.

He sent his appeal to the City Planner on Monday, and received a response two days later.

In an email, city officials told Lajoie the city's attorney had reviewed the ordinance and his complaint, and found: "the portion of the ordinance prohibiting posting of campaign sings on private property is probably unconstitutional."

According to City Planner David Hediger, the city will no longer enforce the six-week rule.

He said they will only enforce the section of the ordiance that states political signs are prohibited on public property.

"It's a rule that's on the books in Lewiston, and if it appears that it's unconstitutional, we're going to simply change that," said Hediger.

He said his department will be working with the City Council to update the language of the ordinance to reflect the change.

Other municipalities have stricter ordinances. In Auburn, political signs can be placed on private property 30 days before the election.

Lajoie said it's time to challenge other ordinances on the same basis.

"Any ordinance that restricts our fundamental constitutional rights should be overturned," said Lajoie. "I think if city officials took the time to educate themselves as to what exactly they are swearing to uphold, we'd have less problems like this."


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