Utah woman sues city over campaign sign ordinance

Aug 25 2010 - 8:14am

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Salt Lake County woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Draper, claiming a city ordinance that sets limits on campaign yard signs violates her right to free speech.

Draper's ordinance specifies the maximum size for signs and limits the number allowed on private property. It also restricts sign postings to 45 days before and seven days after an election.

Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

An attorney for Heather Rice filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court asking a judge for a temporary restraining order blocking city workers from enforcing the rules.

"No compelling state interest justifies the restriction of plaintiff's right to expressive activity and the ordinance unconstitutionally chills and/or silences otherwise lawful and protected speech," attorney Brian Barnard wrote in court papers.

Draper's City Attorney Douglas J. Ahlstrom declined to comment Tuesday, saying he had not yet seen the lawsuit.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball, but no hearing date had been set Tuesday.

This is the second time Rice has challenged the Salt Lake City suburb over political speech. In 2004, she was among three individuals who, with the ALCU, sued over a similar ordinance and won. It was repealed, and in the interim the assumption was that any new ordinance enacted would meet constitutional standards, Barnard said.

On Friday, some 60 Draper political candidates were sent an e-mail that included a summary of the current ordinance. In addition, the e-mail from Code Enforcement Officer Kasie Hall said any signs that had already been posted must be taken down by Tuesday, or they would be pulled by city workers.

"It's an ordinance enacted without an understanding of the First Amendment," said Barnard, who was contacted by one of the candidates receiving the e-mail. "What they've done is enacted a very broad ordinance that goes far beyond what's necessary."

A telephone message left for Hall was not immediately returned Tuesday and Ahlstrom said he did not know what prompted her to send the message.

Court papers show that when queried about the ordinance in an e-mail on Friday, Ahlstrom said the ordinance presents no constitutional problem because it doesn't specifically regulate political signs, only "temporary signs."

"Our ordinance does not prohibit First Amendment free speech; rather it regulates the time, place and manner for sign erection to maintain a safe and aesthetically pleasing environment," he wrote. "The time for your temporary signs is not yet."

Historically, the courts have struck down legislation that sets time limits for political signs as unconstitutional, Barnard said.

Earlier this year, Barnard filed a similar lawsuit against the city of Mapleton, which also restricts the display of political signs representing candidates or initiatives to a certain time period around an election on private property.

In June, the city agreed to a temporary restraining order that suspends its ordinance until a federal judge can rule on its constitutionality.

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