A Washington federal judge today struck down a District of Columbia law regulating how long signs can stay posted on lampposts, finding that it violated the First Amendment.
Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, or ANSWER, which describes itself as a grassroots civil rights organization, has challenged the regulations in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia since 2007. Today, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth found (PDF) that despite repeated efforts by city officials to revise the statute, it still failed to meet the test of constitutionality.
Lamberth found that the law failed on two main fronts. First, the city had failed to justify a distinction drawn between how signs for events are treated versus non-event signs. Second, the city gave law enforcement officers too much discretion to decide whether a sign was event-related or not.
"The Court recognizes that language is imprecise, and it cannot expect definitions to cover every imaginable scenario," Lamberth wrote. "Yet, when a law touches on the sensitive area of free speech, more specificity is required."
Moving forward, the city can keep a one-size-fits-all regulation that sets a limit on how long all signs, regardless of content, to stay up on lampposts. Otherwise, Lamberth said the city will have to come back with more specific definitions for events versus non-events and be prepared to explain why the distinction is necessary.
"But the District may not regulate protected speech in a designated public forum without being able to show that the law is narrowly tailored, and it may not allow officers to exercise broad individual judgment when enforcing the law," the judge wrote.
ANSWER had argued in its complaint that the law unlawfully created different standards for how long certain signs, such as campaign posters, could remain up as compared to signs promoting political activism (anti-war protesters calling for mass protests, for instance). Law enforcement officials had too much discretion to pursue "potentially bankrupting" fines against certain groups and not others in enforcing the statute, the group alleged.
Carl Messineo, legal director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which represented the plaintiffs, said today that the ruling was a "historic" victory for grassroots political organizations. "This ruling deprives the District of the tools by which it has exercised its discretion to discriminate against grassroots political organizations in the enforcement of postering laws," he said.
A spokesman for the city's Office of the Attorney General, Ted Gest, said they are reviewing the opinion.