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Judge will allow First Amendment challenge to rules governing political posters in Washington

Reprinted from Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Time limits on how long posters can hang to announce rallies, trumpet issues or plug candidates in Washington are the subject of a lawsuit a judge allowed to go forward Thursday while strongly suggesting current regulations are improper.

Two anti-war and anti-racism groups sued the District of Columbia four years ago over the poster regulations. The groups argued that city law unfairly allows posters promoting candidates to be affixed to city lampposts longer than posters with general messages like “Stop War.” The rules are unconstitutional and violate the First Amendment because they give one kind of message preference over another, the groups said.

On Thursday, a federal judge said he would allow the groups’ challenge to go forward.

The city revised its postering rules in late 2009 while the lawsuit was going on, but the new rules still create two categories of signs. Signs with generic messages can hang on city lampposts for 60 days. Signs tied to a specific event, like a rally or an election, can hang longer because they can be posted any time prior to the event. They just have to be removed within 30 days after the event is over.

That means signs are treated differently based on their content, explained U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in a 29-page ruling issued Thursday. A sign that reads “Bring our troops home” could hang for 60 days, but a sign that says “Bring our troops home: Vote the Peace Party candidate in 2016” would presumably be allowed to hang for five years until the election, he wrote.

A lawyer for the groups that filed the lawsuit — the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation — said Thursday she believes the city will have to change its rules. Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice said officials “give special treatment for their own political speech while they punish grassroots anti-war speech.”

“They don’t want to have an even playing field,” she said.

Lawyers for the city have previously argued that the regulations help officials combat litter. Attorneys for the city were reviewing the opinion, said Ariel Waldman, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. Both sides have to confer within the next two weeks.

Lamberth said that going forward he would view arguments from the city with an open mind, but he said that the different treatment of signs without explanation presented serious concerns.

“There is, of course, another alternative available to the District’s officials,” the judge wrote, saying the city could change its policy so that all posters can be displayed for the same amount of time. “This would address the problem of litter, remove the suspicion that politicians are carving out exceptions to benefit their own campaigns, and uphold the tradition of vibrant free expression in the nation’s capital.”