WASHINGTON (CN) – The District of Columbia may be violating a Muslim group’s free speech by enforcing a 60-day time limit for lamppost signs containing general political messages, a federal judge ruled.
Though the ruling allows a civil rights group to sue the district under the First Amendment, it also strikes two claims alleging that the regulations “are improperly content-based and undefined” and that the district excessively ticketed a different group in retaliation.
In D.C., anyone may post a sign expressing a general political message for 60 days. Signs related to a specific event can hang indefinitely before the event, but they must be removed within 30 days of its occurrence.
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 clause. The Answer Coalition alleged separately that it received 99 citations for using destructive adhesive to post signs advertising its March to Stop the War event on public lampposts and electrical boxes.
U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy dismissed the case in 2008, but the D.C. Circuit revived the complaint for further proceedings.
Just before the federal appeals court heard oral arguments, the district amended its sign regulations to eliminate the distinction between political and nonpolitical messages, leaving the 60-day limit intact.
Two months ago, the case was reassigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, and the District moved again in June to dismiss all of the claims.
Since the district’s Office of Administrative Hearings convened a hearing with regard to the Answer Coalition’s tickets from 2007, however, that group voluntarily dismissed its claims. With only MASF’s challenges to the regulations, and the Answer Coalition’s civil rights claim remaining, Lamberth ruled Thursday that only MASF’s First Amendment claim could proceed to discovery.
“Posting signs is constitutionally protected speech,” Lamberth wrote. “If the event/non-event distinction is content-based and thus ‘presumptively invalid,’ … this constitutionally protected speech would be infringed for anyone wishing to post a general political message for more than sixty days. MASF explains that it ‘intends to launch a community-based and issue oriented anti-racial profiling campaign using signs and posters on public space,’ … but ‘cannot risk the massive enforcement action that the municipality has brought down upon the ANSWER Coalition were it to simply advance the campaign and post in violation of the existing 60-day limit.'”
The 29-page decision concludes with the suggestion that D.C. officials consider revising the regulations again “to include a single, across-the-board durational restriction that applies equally to all viewpoints and subject matters.”
“This would address the problem of litter, remove the suspicion that politicians are carving out exceptions to benefit their own campaigns, and uphold the tradition of vibrant free expression in the nation’s capital,” Lamberth wrote.