A federal judge has approved the settlement of a lawsuit filed in January by ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Richard A. Sinapi that challenged the constitutionality of a Portsmouth town ordinance banning the posting of political signs on residential property. The favorable settlement, which permanently bars enforcement of the ordinance, was on behalf of town resident Michael DiPaola, who had erected a series of signs on his property that criticized the Town’s perceived selective enforcement of its zoning code.

Under the consent judgment approved by U.S. District Judge William Smith, the Town is permanently restrained from “enforcing and/or threatening to enforce” provisions of the Town’s sign ordinance as it relates to (1) any posting of signs by DiPaola on any property he owns in Portsmouth and (2) “any non-commercial speech signs posted in the Town.” The judgment also awards $17,500 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

Di Paola has had a running feud with Town building officials over zoning issues, and the suit claimed he “posted the first sign after five years of frustration and perceived harassment” from those officials, “both in excessively enforcing codes against him and refusing to enforce building codes against others.” Over the course of a few days in January, he erected additional signs, and he was then issued a notice of violation of the town’s zoning ordinance. The notice alleged that DiPaola failed to obtain a permit required to display the signs, that political signs were not a category of sign allowed to be displayed in residential areas, and that the display also violated a provision banning signs that “interfere with, mislead or confuse traffic.” He was given seven days to remove the signs or else face $500 a day fines for each sign left standing.

The lawsuit argued that the zoning ordinance violated DiPaola’s free speech rights under the First Amendment by, among other things, “permitting only signs with specified content to be erected; exempting certain permitted signs from the requirement of obtaining a permit; and prohibiting all other speech, including political speech.” Thus, the suit claimed, the ordinance had the unconstitutional effect of regulating political speech more harshly than other types of speech. The suit also challenged the ordinance’s failure to “provide any guidelines or criteria which must be followed and applied by a Building Inspector in making a determination as to whether or not to grant a sign permit.” Shortly after the suit was filed, the Town agreed to withdraw the notice of violation while the case proceeded.

Plaintiff DiPaola said: “I am really pleased that my right to speak my mind has been vindicated. As I’ve said all along, I just want to be treated fairly, the same as anybody else, and I’m happy that I can continue to express my views on my property to make other people aware of the disputes I have had with town officials.”

ACLU of RI attorney Sinapi added: “This consent judgment is an important victory for freedom of speech. Courts have regularly held that political signs on residential property are a form of unique expression entitled to the highest degree of protection under the First Amendment. This consent judgment vindicates that key principle and ensures that people like Mr. DiPaola can use their property to express their views without having to seek the government’s permission.”

 More information on the case can be found here.

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