ACLU Challenges North Kingstown Political Sign Ordinance On Behalf Of Congressional Candidate

October 20, 2010 12:00 am

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The Rhode Island ACLU today filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of North Kingstown, challenging an ordinance that discriminatorily limits the posting of political signs in the town. The suit was filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi on behalf of independent Congressional candidate John O. Matson, who was forced to take down a number of his political signs this month after being notified that they violated the town’s zoning restrictions on the size and placement of such signs.

Under the town ordinance, political signs may not be larger than six square feet in a residential zone or 20 square feet in a non-residential zone; nor may signs of any size be posted on trees. However, the lawsuit notes that in residential areas, construction and contractor signs, holiday signs, banners, and a variety of other signs may be larger than six square feet, and that in a business or industrial district, non-political signs of up to 50 square feet are allowed. The lawsuit argues that because the ordinance imposes size limitations on political signs “greater than that placed on non-political signs, it impermissibly infringes on freedom of speech based on content and is therefore unconstitutional on its face.”

In contesting the ordinance’s ban on posting signs on trees, the suit notes: “The Town permits a property owner to do virtually anything else to a tree on his or her property—cut it down, prune it, paint it, decorate it garishly, attach a hammock to it, or build a tree house in it; everything except use it to engage in constitutionally protected speech.”

Last week, the RI ACLU wrote a letter to town officials on Matson’s behalf, pointing out the ordinance’s unconstitutionality, and seeking assurances it would not be used against Matson, who could face fines up to $100 a day for each “illegal” sign. However, Town Manager Michael Embury said the ordinance would be enforced if Matson re-erected the signs he voluntarily took down after receiving the violation notices.

The lawsuit notes that Matson’s independent campaign for public office “is almost totally self-funded. He has minimal resources with which to wage a campaign. Campaign signs are the primary medium by which the Plaintiff communicates his candidacy to potential voters. With the general election less than two weeks away, he has nowhere to turn except to the Court to obtain relief from this infringement on his participation in the democratic process as a candidate.” The suit seeks a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the ordinance, as well as an award of damages and attorneys’ fees.

The suit also contests the legality of other aspects of the ordinance, such as allowing political signs to be posted only within 60 days of an election, and banning or requiring a permit for any non-election-related political signs.

RI ACLU attorney Sinapi said today: “Political sign restrictions generally have the effect of favoring incumbents over challengers, since one of the major obstacles for any challenger in a political campaign is name recognition. Further, the sign ordinance’s more favorable treatment of non-political speech simply cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny. Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and to treat commercial speech more favorably turns that constitutional protection on its head.”

Plaintiff Matson added: “I am not pursuing this lawsuit for myself. It is for every voter who wants be able to express their views on their front lawn without fear of punishment.”

A copy of the ACLU’s complaint and memorandum of law are available on its website at

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