ACLU Files Lawsuit Against Fenton’s Unconstitutional Sign Ordinance

November 01, 2006

DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit yesterday against the City of Fenton challenging the enforcement of its political sign ordinance after city officials ignored a letter urging the city to amend its ordinance and protect the rights of its residents.

The ACLU of Michigan is representing Joseph Hood, a Fenton Township resident, who was told to remove two political signs promoting Dick Devos for Governor that were arranged in a V-shape at his place of business adjacent to US-23 in the City of Fenton.  A Code Enforcement Officer notified Hood’s employee that the signs violated an ordinance forbidding the display a political sign over 4 square feet in size on one’s property or signs spaced closer than ten feet apart.
 
“The courts have repeatedly told cities that such political sign ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Political speech is at the heart of a democratic process and the First Amendment rights that we all hold so dear do not hold second-place to commercial signs or the aesthetic preferences of city council members.”
 
The courts have consistently ruled that cities cannot treat political speech less favorably than commercial speech.  Nonetheless, non-political signs in Fenton can be larger than 4 square feet. Some, such as roadside stand signs and corporate flags, can be as large as 32 square feet. The Supreme Court has recognized the unique place that political yard signs play in our democracy and has noted that residents’ self-interest in keeping their neighborhood looking good generally makes government interference with residents’ First Amendment rights unnecessary.

“While the city claims that these restrictions are not censorship, when it comes to speech, size matters,” said ACLU Cooperating Attorney Gregory Gibbs. “When government establishes one set of standards for political speech and another set of standards for commercial speech, it implicitly indicates a preference and makes it more difficult for those advocating a political message to communicate as effectively as businesses.”

Every election cycle the ACLU of Michigan sends letters to cities and townships reminding them that restrictions on political signs infringe on residents’ constitutional rights.  This year, special letters were sent to the cities of Plymouth and Clawson and Commerce Township, after residents complained to the ACLU.  The letter to Plymouth was on behalf of a woman who wanted to erect a Granholm-for-Governor sign. Each city has agreed not to enforce their sign ordinances and to amend their ordinances after the election in order to comply with the constitution.  

Before the 2004 election, the ACLU successfully sued the City of Troy on behalf of a President Bush supporter because the Troy ordinance made it a crime to erect a political sign more than 30 days before the election or to erect more than two political signs at a time. A federal court struck down the Troy ordinance as unconstitutional in January.  

The first hearing will be held on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. before U.S District Court Judge Marrianne O. Battani in Detroit. Mr. Hood is represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Gregory Gibbs, ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg, and K.C. Baran. Muna Jondy also assisted in filing the case.

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