November 29, 2012
D.C. Signs Regulation Violates Free Speech
Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth (D.D.C.) ruled today in Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition v. D.C. that the District of Columbia's regulation governing the posting of signs on city lampposts violated the First Amendment on its face. Judge Lamberth granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and thus ended this latest chapter in this long-running dispute over D.C. signs. But the ruling also invites the city to come back with a new sign regulation, maybe leading to the next chapter in this case.
The regulation--after five years of litigation and four changes--now reads,
108.5 A sign, advertisement, or poster shall be affixed for no more than one hundred eighty (180) days.
108.6 A sign, advertisement, or poster related to a specific event shall be removed no later than thirty (30) days following the event to which it is related. This subsection is not intended to extend the durational restriction in subsection 108.5.
108.11 Within twenty-four hours of posting each sign, advertisement, or poster, two (2) copies of the material shall be filed with an agent of the District of Columbia so designated by the Mayor. The filing shall include the name, address, and telephone number of the originator of the sign, advertisement, or poster, and if the sign is for an event, the date of the event.
108.13 For purposes of this section, the term "event" refers to an occurrence, happening, activity or series of activities, specific to an identifiable time and place, if referenced on the poster itself or reasonably determined from all circumstances by the inspector.
The court ruled that city lampposts were a designated public forum and that the reg created a content-based distinction (between signs for events and all other signs). But the court said that the city failed to provide a content-neutral justification for the distinction. It wasn't enough, the court said, that the city's attorney represented that the reg was designed to reduce litter and enhance aesthetics. The city had to produce more (like some actual proof of the city's actual purpose).
The court also said that the reg was unconstitutionally vague. Judge Lamberth ruled that 108.13 allowed an inspector to determine which signs qualified as "event" signs without sufficient criteria or guidance.
This is only the latest ruling in this long-running dispute and may lead to more reg changes and more litigation, especially if the District insists on its distinction between signs for events and all other signs.
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