R.I. sign law gives police chiefs ‘unbridled discretion’

Thursday, August 7, 2008

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal judge has struck down a Rhode Island law that allows police chiefs to remove signs near public highways.

U.S. District Judge William Smith said in a decision last week that the law was unconstitutional because it violates free-speech protections and gives local police too much power.

Former congressional candidate Rod Driver filed the lawsuit after Richmond police removed campaign signs during the 2006 race that Driver had placed on private property opposite the Washington County Fair.

The law “operates as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech because it grants the local Chief of Police (or his designee) unbridled discretion to approve or deny sign postings on even private property that overlaps with a public highway right of way,” Smith wrote in Driver v. Town of Richmond.

The judge also said that while he recognized the state’s substantial interest in promoting highway safety, “that interest must be balanced against the rights of expression protected by the First Amendment, particularly with respect to political speech.”

Richmond officials had argued that state law required people posting signs to get written permission from the police chief if the postings were within the limits of a public highway.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union said on Aug. 5 that Smith's ruling was a victory for free speech.

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