Town’s Sign Rules Face Free-Speech Scrutiny

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A small Central Valley town will face the music for quashing a man’s “get out the vote” event in a public park, a federal judge ruled.
     John Duran says the city of Porterville – a town of 55,000 about 70 miles southeast of Fresno – interfered with a “get out the vote” event he had planned in a local park ahead of city council elections in 2012.
     Duran claims he got permission for the event from someone named Michelle in the parks and leisure department. However, as he was setting up candidate signs on the day of the event the man says Porterville Police Department sergeant – and defendant – Richard Standridge ordered him to remove the signs because they violated an at-the-time unspecified city ordinance.
     But Duran placed the signs throughout the park anyway, about a yard away from the public sidewalk. Standridge returned later and ordered Duran to remove the signs completely, although he allowed the man and his volunteers to place them on car windshields and bumpers a few feet away on a public street.
     Duran sued, claiming the city’s unconstitutional code on signing interfered with his First Amendment rights. The man also argued that Standridge acted at the behest of defendant city manager John Lollis to silence the event, since it touted Lollis’ rivals and political adversaries.
     For its part, the city argued that Duran lacked standing to bring the suit at all since by his own admission the signs didn’t belong to him and he didn’t support any of the candidates. The city also said Duran’s action was moot because Standridge had relied on an ordinance that had already been repealed to get Duran’s signs out of the park.
     But U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill said last week that while Duran’s alleged constitutional injury seems minor, it is still a violation of his First Amendment rights that needs to be addressed.
     “The court finds that plaintiff’s declaration provides sufficient facts – almost all of which defendants do not dispute – that show that plaintiff suffered a cognizable legal injury, however minor, traceable to Standridge’s conduct, which likely can be redressed by a favorable decision from this court,” O’Neill wrote. “Plaintiff therefore has standing to bring claim under Section 1983 on the ground that Standridge violated his First Amendment rights. The court further finds that plaintiff’s declaration provides sufficient uncontested facts to demonstrate that he has standing to bring his First Amendment claim through his as-applied challenge to the city ordinance on the ground that Standridge’s alleged enforcement of that ordinance impermissibly restricted plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.”
     Standridge’s conduct in ordering Duran to remove the signs remains the issue regardless of Duran’s erroneous mention of the repealed ordinance, O’Neill wrote in denying the mootness challenge. Furthermore, the new ordinance only refers to commercial signing placed near roads and sidewalks abutting the park – not a complete ban on all temporary signs within the park boundaries, the judge said.
     O’Neill also rejected Porterville’s contention that only the city council had the authority to approve Duran’s event, and that a Michelle in the city’s parks and leisure department did not. And since the city placed all its eggs in the basket of Duran’s failure to plead his constitutional claim, “the court denies defendants’ motion for summary judgment,” the judge concluded.

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