Iowa town, civil rights group work to settle lawsuit over yard sign

Wednesday, January 5, 2000

An Iowa man protesting a new bus route through his neighborhood has won a reprieve for his yard sign after the city and the Iowa Civil Liberties Union entered into settlement talks over his lawsuit.

On Dec. 3, Martin Hathaway filed a federal lawsuit, claiming Coralville city officials had violated his First Amendment rights by ordering him to remove his 4-by-8-foot sign, which reads 'Stop the Buses, Save the Street.'

The lawsuit alleges that Coralville's “published ordinances, zoning regulations and policies … do not give adequate or fair notice of what expressive activities are proscribed.”

On Nov. 15, a city police officer cited Hathaway for violating the city's sign policies. The citations noted the following city zoning provision:

Ground Signs — In non-residential zoning districts one on-premise sign per street frontage is permitted on a parcel.

Hathaway pointed out in his lawsuit that the provision is inapplicable because he lives in a residential, not a non-residential, area.

His lawsuit further alleges that a city official had told him that only three types of signs were allowed in yards: church signs, real estate signs and political signs. City officials reportedly told Hathaway that his sign did not qualify as a “political sign,” even though he was expressing his view on a matter of public controversy.

City officials have halted enforcement of the disputed ordinance until settlement talks are completed with the Iowa Civil Liberties Union Foundation, which is representing Hathaway.

Assistant City Attorney Kirstene Diehl said that “nobody in the city of Coralville is in the business of squashing anyone's rights.”

“We have sent a copy of a draft ordinance to the Iowa Civil Liberties Union that revises current law and affords individuals in residential areas the right to display noncommercial signage,” she said. “We have made an attempt to provide a vehicle for people to express their First Amendment rights.”

Under the draft ordinance, which would require approval by the Coralville City Council, citizens could display noncommercial signs of up to 32 square feet in their yards.

Randall Wilson, legal director for the ICLU Foundation, said he received the draft ordinance after business hours on Jan. 3. 'The city understands that it needs to take a constitutional approach to the issue of signs,' he said.

Diehl said she did not expect the proposed ordinance to go before the City Council until February.