It seems both the American Civil Liberties Union and the president of the East Greenwich Town Council are in agreement: the ordinance prohibiting political signs on Main Street is unconstitutional.
"I don't think the town has ever tried to enforce restrictions because there are constitutional issues," said Town Council President Michael Isaacs earlier this week. He was responding to information that the Rhode Island ACLU's Steve Brown had said restricting political signs more than commercial signs was a violation of free speech.
The East Greenwich ordinance prohibits signs downtown (CD zone) and on Post Road (CH zone) and reads:
Any sign displayed so as to advise voters of a candidate or position in a forthcoming election. Political signs may be no greater than four square feet in area. Freestanding political signs may be no greater than four feet in height overall, and they may not be placed closer than five feet from any property line. Such signs are prohibited from public rights-of-way, municipal buildings and properties and may not be affixed to trees, traffic signs or utility poles.
An inquiry by RI Future's Bob Plain about the East Greenwich ordinance prompted this response from the ACLU's Brown:
It is a clear violation of the First Amendment to ban political signs from zoning areas where commercial signs are authorized. Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and it inverts the premise of this crucial right when commercial speech is actually treated in a more favorable manner than political commentary. The same is true for restrictions on the size of political signs. A municipality has no right to tell people that they could display larger signs if they were promoting a toothpaste instead of expressing their political views.
Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais said she thought the reason for the restriction of signs on Main Street was more logistical than anything else.
"We were thinking of free-standing lawn-type signs and there's nowhere to put them on Main Street," she explained. "Practically, there's no where to put them."
But some businesses on Main Street have put political signs in their windows. Bourbonnais said if they were on the inside of the window, the town had no jurisdiction over them. The town, however, was not in the practice of policing that particular ordinance unless someone complained, she said.
In his statement, Brown also pointed out the size restriction placed on political signs was unconstitutional. If commercial signs on South County Trail, for instance, are allowed to be larger than 4 feet square, than political signs should be allowed to be larger too.
This is not the first time East Greenwich has been taken to task by the ACLU for its political sign ordinance. In 2004, Brown sent a letter to the town stating time limits for political signs (i.e. no signs allowed until 30 days before an election) are unconstitutional. The Town Council changed the ordinance, removing that restriction.
Isaacs said this week the town ordinance should follow the constitution on free speech issues.
"We certainly want what we have on the books to be constitutional," Isaacs said. "No one's ever been cited."