Politics & Policy

Permits for Political Speech?

A county official collects political yard signs in Manlius the day after election day, 2011.
A New York town that places restrictions on yard signs is being taken to court for it.

David Rubin wants to be able to put political signs in his yard.

Yard signs have long been a staple of political campaigns, local, state, or federal. But in the upstate New York town of Manlius, residents can’t put up signs without a permit, and can’t have them up more than thirty days before or five days after an election.

“It’s an obvious unconstitutional violation of my First Amendment rights,” says Rubin, a communications professor at Syracuse University.

#ad#When Rubin put signs out for the 2006 election, he was contacted by Manlius town officials who informed him he couldn’t have signs out as soon as he he did, more than 30 days before the election. In elections since, he’s put out yard signs again as he pleases. “We put the lawn signs up anyway,” he recalls, “and kind of dared them to come and stop us, and they didn’t.”

Last year, Rubin wrote about the town’s policies in a column in the Syracuse Post-Standard. His column drew the attention of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), an organization that focuses on First Amendment issues.

Rubin agreed to work with the CCP, and the group first contacted the town of Manlius in March, sending a letter to them and requesting a response by May 1. Months went by, with Manlius only acknowledging the letter and saying it had been sent to the town attorney. On August 6, CCP filed a lawsuit against the town. The suit, filed in the federal court for the Northern District of New York, “asks the Court to declare the law unconstitutional, permanently block enforcement of the law, and award attorney’s fees to the plaintiff,” in CCP’s words.

The CCP’s legal director, Allen Dickerson, says there are multiple legal problems with the town’s ban on signs. “One shouldn’t have to request permission from the state before speaking,” he says.

“And the Supreme Court,” he continues, “has talked about licensing for speech, and one of the points it has made is it’s very dangerous to have permitting requirements, because they serve as a potentially subtle and unreviewable way for those who are in power to prevent their political opponents from speaking.”

CCP won a similar case last year. North Dakota had had a 100-year-old law banning political speech on Election Day. Yard signs were considered speech, and had to be taken down on the day of polls. The federal district court for North Dakota struck the law down, noting that the Supreme Court had decided in the 1966 case Mills v. Alabama that it was illegal for the state to prohibit newspaper editorials on Election Day. “The State of North Dakota’s electioneering ban is a far more sweeping prohibition on speech than the law invalidated by the United States Supreme Court in Mills back in 1966,” the court noted.

According to CCP, the town of Manlius (which did not respond to a call for a comment) enacted the ban to “to preserve aesthetics and ensure traffic safety.” But those interests, says Dickerson, “can be met in less restrictive ways — such as limits on the size of signs, or regulations (which the town also has) that specifically address hazards to public safety.”

Another problem with the regulation is it applies only to political signs. (For Sale signs, for instance, don’t require a permit.) “The Constitution does not permit greater burdens on political speech than on other speech,” Dickerson says.

Rubin says he still hasn’t asked the town for a permit for his political signs.

 “I don’t have to get permission from government to speak,” he explains. “That’s what the First Amendment’s all about.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.

Katrina Trinko — Katrina Trinko is a political reporter for National Review. Trinko is also a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors, and her work has been published in various media outlets ...

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