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In ‘a victory for free speech,’ ACLU of R.I. settles suit over Pawtucket’s political sign restrictions

The Boston Globe 12/6/2022 Edward Fitzpatrick
A campaign sign for Jennifer Stewart, a Democratic candidate for House District 59 in Pawtucket. © Courtesy of Jennifer Stewart A campaign sign for Jennifer Stewart, a Democratic candidate for House District 59 in Pawtucket.

PROVIDENCE — In “a victory for free speech,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island on Tuesday announced the city of Pawtucket will lift restrictions on political signs to settle a lawsuit.

The ACLU sued in July after the city officials told two Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives — Jennifer A. Stewart and Cherie L. Cruz — that a Pawtucket ordinance banned the posting of political signs on residential property more than 30 days before an election.

The lawsuit argued that the posting of residential political signs was protected by the First Amendment.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that “the First Amendment has its fullest and its most urgent application during speech uttered during a campaign for political office,” the lawsuit stated. “Communication by signs and posters is virtually pure speech.”

And the Supreme Court has ruled that “residential signs are a form of unique expression entitled to the highest degree of protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,” the lawsuit stated.

The ACLU noted that Stewart and Cruz lacked significant name recognition, so they planned to “rely heavily on inexpensive campaign lawn signs to … communicate their candidacies to potential voters.”

As part of a consent judgment filed Tuesday, Pawtucket is barred from “prohibiting the erection and/or display of political campaign signs, including but not limited to candidate campaign signs or issue signs, or from subjecting the posting of any such signs to durational limits.”

Pawtucket also is prohibited from “imposing any size, placement, and/or illumination restrictions on political campaign signs, including but not limited to candidate campaign signs or issue signs, that are more stringent than those imposed on non-political signs.”

The city agreed to pay $18,311 in attorneys’ fees and $500 each in compensatory damages to Stewart and Cruz. Both candidates said they would donate their award of damages to the ACLU of Rhode Island.

“The resolution of this lawsuit is a victory for free speech in Pawtucket,” Stewart said in a statement. “I hope Pawtucket — and every city and town in Rhode Island — takes this opportunity to review their laws and repeal those which are unconstitutional and undermine democracy.”

Cruz said the lawsuit was not just about signs.

“It was about a basic right of residents to freely express their political and electoral views,” she said. “The settlement of this case reminds us that we must constantly fight against practices that negatively impact the lives of residents, including the denial of our most basic constitutional right — freedom of speech.”

Cruz won the House District 58 seat that Representative Carlos E. Tobon is vacating, and Stewart won the House District 59 seat after beating Representative Jean Philippe Barros in a Democratic primary.

Richard A. Sinapi, the ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney who filed the lawsuit, applauded Pawtucket’s decision to settle the matter.

“Decades of court decisions have made it abundantly clear that limiting political speech in this manner simply cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Sinapi said. “This settlement should place all other cities and towns with similar ordinances on notice that there is a price to pay for violating their residents’ core First Amendment rights of political speech.”

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said this is at least the sixth lawsuit that the group has filed over local ordinances restricting political yard signs. “It’s always surprising to see ordinances like this on the books,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there are a few others hanging around.”

A spokesman for Pawtucket issued a statement, saying the city “has and continues to respect our residents’ First Amendment right to free speech, particularly political speech, which is so critical to our democracy.”

Pawtucket enacted a zoning ordinance titled “Signs that do not require permits” after receiving requests to do so by city residents. “Fast forward to today,” the statement said. “The city both acknowledges and appreciates Representative Elect-Cruz and Representative-Elect Stewart for bringing this issue to light through the ACLU lawsuit.”

The city noted the settlement totals $19,311, including $500 in compensatory damages to Cruz and Stewart. “We have requested that the representative-elects each waive the $500 in compensatory damages outlined in the consent agreement, as it is in the best interest of Pawtucket’s taxpayers,” the city said.

This story has been updated with a response from the City of Pawtucket.

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