ACLU Challenging Local Campaign Sign Ordinance - Southern Maryland Headline News

ACLU Challenging Local Campaign Sign Ordinance

By Andrea Shiell, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (June 19, 2008)—Residents wishing to display political campaign signs too soon or too far after the general election may face penalties according to an ordinance that was recently challenged by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union.

Article 6, chapter 65 of the St. Mary’s County Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance prohibits the display of political yard signs on private property until 45 days prior to an election, 15 days after a primary election if the candidate is does not advance to the general election, or 15 days after a general election. The ordinance is similar to a recently invalidated Baltimore County law that imposed similar restrictions.

In Bell v. Baltimore County, Judge Catherine Blake ruled the regulation to be an infringement on free speech, noting that many courts have recognized “the importance of official campaign signs and the message they provide,” and ruling them a form of protected speech.

Though the St. Mary’s County ordinance has not been officially challenged in court, officials from the ACLU have sent out notices to this and neighboring counties with similar laws about the issue, charging that the enforcement of these laws is unconstitutional, as it violates the First Amendment.

Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon wrote in a letter to St. Mary’s County Commissioner President Jack Russell that, “even if you are not actively enforcing your sign law, the continued retention of a law that unconstitutionally limits speech has a chilling effect upon residents.”

Jeon explained in a telephone interview that she hopes to see more attention given to the ordinance and for counties with similar restrictions to respond by updating their own laws.

Similar laws exist in Harford, Washington, Charles, and Talbot County, and can be enforced by fines or citations. Homeowners associations would of course retain their own rights to enforce whatever restrictions they felt appropriate for the display of signs or f lags, and Jeon explained the repeal of the St. Mary’s County ordinance would not affect them.

Russell said he would not be opposed to updating the county code.

“Maybe it’s a good reminder for two years hence,” he said, explaining that local elections could be hurt by the existing law, as well as national elections. “I saw the letter…but we have other things to deal with right now.”

Russell added that the courts would ultimately have to rule on the issue.

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