PITTSBURGH - Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a South Park resident who is challenging a township policy that restricts the placement of political signs in front of private homes. Homeowners are not permitted to post signs more than thirty days before an election. The ACLU-PA asked the court to order the township to suspend the restriction immediately.
"The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech year-round, not just thirty days before an election," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director. "South Park has no authority to limit residents' right to participate in an election by telling them what they can say in their own front yard and when they can say it."
Besides limiting when a political sign can be posted, the ordinance also requires homeowners to pay a bond and register with the Township before putting any campaign signs on their lawn. If property owners place signs more than thirty days before an election and/or do not register with the Township and pay the bond, they are subject to fines of up to $500.00 per day as well as court costs and attorneys fees.
The First Amendment lawsuit, filed in U. S. District Court in Pittsburgh earlier today, is brought on behalf of Dr. Joseph P. Rudolph, a South Park homeowner who wants to place campaign signs on his lawn in advance of Pennsylvania's April 2008 Presidential primary and the November 2008 general election.
"It's my house and my property and I simply don't understand how South Park can tell me that I can't put up a Presidential campaign sign in my own yard right now," said Dr. Rudolph. Under South Park's ordinance, campaign signs are prohibited until March 23, thirty days before the April 22 election.
Dr. Rudolph was first threatened by the Township with fines, court costs and attorneys fees in March 2007 when he put up a lawn sign in support of his son's candidacy for district magistrate. At that time, the ACLU-PA advised South Park that the ordinance was unconstitutional and provided township officials with relevant Supreme Court decisions to support that assertion. Although South Park agreed at the time to suspend enforcement of the law, in October 2007 the Township advised Dr. Rudolph that it would continue to enforce the ban.
The Supreme Court has declared similar laws to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech and a violation of the First Amendment. In the last 10 years, the ACLU-PA has successfully sued six communities in the Commonwealth for similar First Amendment violations: Upper St. Clair (Allegheny County-1999), Allegheny Township (Westmoreland County-2001), Harborcreek Township (Erie County-2002), the City of Philadelphia (2004), East Stroudsburg (Monroe County-2004), and Baldwin Borough (Allegheny County-2005). Dozens of other communities have amended their laws in response to ACLU threats of suit.
Despite these legal successes, Walczak noted that many communities across Pennsylvania still have similar restrictive lawn-sign laws, and especially this year that could lead to more lawsuits.
"With the record turnouts we've seen in the others states' Presidential primaries and caucuses, we expect that more people than ever will want to participate by sharing their political views through lawn signs. The ACLU stands ready to assist homeowners across the state if their right to put up campaign signs is restricted by a local ordinance similar to the one in South Park."
On February 19, 2008, the court granted the ACLU’s requested temporary restraining order, freeing South Park residents to display campaign signs on their lawns. The court scheduled a hearing for February 27 to consider extending the order.
Today's case is Rudolph v. Township of South Park.