Federal judge OKs size limit for political signs

Monday, August 16, 2010

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A Baltimore County ordinance prohibiting political signs larger than 8 square feet does not violate the First Amendment, a federal judge has ruled.

Stephen V. Kolbe had challenged the constitutionally of the ordinance after being told that he needed to remove a 32-square-foot sign that he placed on his yard last May supporting Maryland gubernatorial candidate (and former governor) Robert Ehrlich.

Kolbe filed a federal lawsuit, contending that the size restriction on temporary signs infringed on his political free-speech rights. County officials countered that the ordinance furthered traffic safety and neighborhood aesthetics.

The parties argued over whether the 8-square-foot regulation was content-based or content-neutral. Kolbe argued that it was content-based because inspectors had to examine the content of the sign to determine whether it fell within one of six temporary sign categories. Government officials contended that it was content-neutral because it applied the same size limit to all temporary signs.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake agreed with the county in her Aug. 11 opinion in Kolbe v. Baltimore County. She said the ordinance was content-neutral because it applied the 8-square-foot rule to all temporary signs.

Even content-neutral laws must serve a substantial government interest, must be narrowly drawn and leave open ample alternative means of communication. Blake determined that the ordinance met all of these requirements.

With respect to alternative means, she reasoned that individuals in Baltimore County were not limited as to the number of signs they could post or how long the signs could stay up. Thus, according to the judge, Kolbe could post any number of signs 8 square feet or less for as long as he wanted.

Kolbe argued that the ordinance was unnecessary because existing regulations already prohibit signs from interfering with safety and require signs that are in disarray to be removed. According to Kolbe, these regulations already satisfy the county’s traffic-safety and aesthics concerns.

Blake agreed that these ordinances furthered safety and appearance interests, but added: “Enforcement, however, would be difficult and would require much more discretionary decision-making on the part of county inspectors, which in itself could pose a First Amendment danger.”

She concluded: “The balance drawn here by the County, whether or not it is perfectly drawn, appears to promote substantial governmental interests that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation.”

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