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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Changes to D.C. Lamppost Law Didn’t Fix Problem

WASHINGTON (CN) - Officials made some laudable changes to regulations involving political signs on D.C. lampposts, but the law is still unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled.

Washington law mandates that lamppost signs can stay up for a maximum of 180 days, but signs "related to an event" must be removed 30 days after that event has passed.

The Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation (MASF) and the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (Answer) Coalition filed suit in 2007, claiming that the regulations violate the First Amendment and due process rights.

The Answer Coalition alleged separately that it had received 99 citations for using destructive adhesive to post signs advertising its March to Stop the War event on public lampposts and electrical boxes.

Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth allowed the claims to proceed to discovery in July, and last month slammed the city for an "Orwellian" discovery violation.

That remark concerned the district's attempts to minimize discovery as unnecessary, while still making its own extensive demands.

The district has revised its lamppost law for the fourth time, but Lamberth found Thursday that the regulations are still unconstitutional.

In its latest iteration, the law treats signs relating to an "event" differently from "non-event" signs when determining how long the signs may remain posted. Lamberth said the law also gives local law enforcement "broad administrative discretion" in determining the definition of an event.

"The court lauds the district for opening its lampposts to political messages, when it might have never designated them a public forum in the first place," he wrote. "The court commends the district's Department of Transportation for repeatedly amending the sign regulations to bring the law closer to constitutionality.

"But once the district opens up public property to political speech, it has a responsibility to be fair, even, and precise in its regulations," he added.

Lamberth urged the district to "strive to limit administrative discretion, not codify and endorse it," when treading on First Amendment interests.

"In order to avoid chilling protected speech, the regulations must be clear, and provide objective standards for enforcement," he added.

The district can keep the law as it is so long as it carries "one across-the-board durational limit applying to all signs," the ruling states.

It also cannot distinguish between events and non-events without explanation.

Lamberth granted the motion for summary judgement filed by MASF and the Answer Coalition.

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