Town official: Political sign ban on private property will not be enforced
FARMINGTON - Town officials have backed off an attempt to ban a local candidate from posting campaign signs on private property while they seek a legal opinion on the matter.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, joined other candidates around the state to protest the interpretation of local ordinances regarding election signs. He said he was told this week by Farmington town officials that he had to take down all of his campaign signs posted on private property until the ordinance's allowable 42-day period kicks in on Sept. 26.
"The First Amendment is dead in Farmington," Harvell said sounding upset last night.
Candidate protests are sprouting up like the signs themselves in the towns of Alfred, Lewiston and now Farmington, all of which have similar sign ordinances.
Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said the town is not enforcing a ban and has asked for a legal opinion from the Maine Municipal Association on the matter of the town's regulation of posting election signs on private property.
"We may have over-reached," Davis said of the local ordinance. He found it interesting that the same sign ban issue is being raised is towns across the state. "It's something that was overlooked when all the sign ordinances were based on other communities' ordinances," he said.
In 1999, the town of Farmington adopted a near-identical ordinance to be in line with the state law that allows posting campaign signs without permit inside the public's right of way 42 days prior to an election. Differences adopted by the town call for a quicker take down time of three days after an election, as opposed to the state, which allows seven days.
State law 23 M.R.S.A. §1922 does allow for local sign ordinances to be stricter. Farmington’s original sign ordinance was amended in the following years to also prohibit campaign signs from most traffic islands in the right of way after public safety concerns were raised for driver visibility after the popular patches of political signs were said to obstruct traffic views.
"They said it's always been interpreted by the town 'to apply to all election/campaign signs without permit – whether inside or outside the right of way,'" Harvell read from an email he received from the code enforcement office yesterday.
The incumbent candidate said he usually likes to get the signs up on supporters' front lawns a week before the Farmington Fair because the fair draws big crowds to town. "This is the first time anyone has said anything to me," Harvell noted.
He refused to take any of the signs down because a ban on them on private property is "unconstitutional," Harvell said.
Zachary L. Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine Foundation in Portland, agreed with Harvell today.
"It is unconstitutional under the First Amendment," Heiden said of the ban on private property posting. He cited the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, City of Ladue v Gilleo in which the court ruled in favor of property owner who posted anti-war banners on her front lawn and was told by the city officials, based on their sign ordinance that restricted the placement of signs in the yards of residents, to remove her signs.
Heiden said he's heard from the towns of Alfred, Lewiston and now Farmington regarding the issue and is drafting an informative letter to sen to towns across the state.
The ACLU is requesting that cities and towns with these ordinances immediately abandon enforcement and act to remove the laws from their books. They say local governments cannot limit the time a political sign is posted on a resident’s property, even if the issue is not current or the election has passed;
require a fee to post a sign; impose unreasonable limits on sign size, placement from curb or number of signs posted per yard; or treat political signs less favorably than other types of lawn signs.
In an email, Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine said, “In Maine communities, political lawn signs play a crucial role in political campaigns, so we want to make sure it’s clear that people have the right to display political signs.”
Davis believes the confusion may have come in the ordinance that allows for an election sign exemption with regards to the scope of town regulation of where and for how long they can be posted. But, Davis stressed, that can't supersede First Amendment rights. He added that nothing will be done until he receives a legal opinion.
On hearing the town had rescinded its order today, Harvell said he was glad to hear it. "Political signs on private property goes to the core of First Amendment rights."