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Sign Wars: The District in Full Retreat

In the continuing saga of the American University Park Sign Wars, the District government now claims, incredibly, that it never sought to stop the residents of Ellicott Street from putting up protest signs on their own front lawns.

Of course, we know that's not true. I have copies of the citations that the city slapped on the neighbors who dared to express their views (opposing development of a McMansion on their block) in the form of lawn signs.

But in response to the lawsuit that the neighbors have filed in federal court, the District now says that "plaintiffs have not been served a Notice of Infraction, were not prosecuted in any forum or fined, and on information and belief, their signs remain posted and intact." Yet the city now admits that "the notices stating that plaintiffs needed permits before posting signs of ideological or expressive character were issued in error."

Translation: The city now concedes it messed up and there is indeed no law prohibiting citizens from expressing their views in signs on their own property.

The city has filed with the court a statement by the Chief Building Inspector, David Janifer, admitting that the residents who posted signs were cited in error and that those citations have now been rescinded.Click here to see Janifer's full retreat.

The city's groveling, pathetic, error-filled response to the lawsuit now admits that "the municipal
regulations at issue were never intended to prohibit signs that express views on
controversial issues."

But my favorite part of the city's filing is its last sentence, which begs the court not to take action against the District because the city has conceded its error. "This Court should not presume that the peoples' government will act in error in the future," the city's lawyers write, and you can just see the lawyers cringing in hope that the judge will let them go, just this once.

But wait--even with the city's retreat, this case is not yet over. Christopher Mohr, the lawyer representing the AU Park homeowners, tells me that he will pursue the suit against the District despite the city's argument that the claim against it is now moot. "They don't get off that easily," Mohr says in an email. "They are definitely in retreat, but the goal is still to get a preliminary injunction against enforcement and a declaration of unconstitutionality. This is a free speech case, and their mootness arguments are flawed. If they get away with this, the next time they threaten someone, they can get them to take their signs down unless the party sues. Then they're in retreat again and the case is 'moot.'"

What Mohr and the homeowners want to do now is to get a clear and definitive ruling from the court that the city cannot stomp on homeowners' rights to express their opinions. He wants to get rid of the regulations the District used to go after the citizens in the first place. "There's an entire section on residential signage" in the code, and that's what Mohr wants declared unconstitutional.

He's hoping to get a hearing before a judge in the next 20 days or so.

By Marc Fisher |  May 12, 2006; 7:29 AM ET
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Good decision to continue with the suit.

Posted by: Civil Libertarian | May 12, 2006 11:25 AM

I remember something very similar when the Convention Center was in the proposal stage. A group of local residents put up posters in public space critical of Jack Evans, who was the leading proponent of the Convention Center, and DPW inspectors went to their homes and served them with citations. Interestingly, at that time the area was overrun with illegal posters, and neighbors had complained to Jack Evans about them, and he insisted there was nothing he could do about it. I guess he was selling himself short.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 12, 2006 11:49 AM

The council should go ahead and revoke this law and steal the thunder from the attorney who is looking for his pay day. But hey, it is not my tax dollars at work here.

Posted by: Tired of it all | May 12, 2006 12:17 PM

I almost feel a little bit sorry for the city...for being so freaking DUMB. I mean, cmon, like Fisher said from the beginning: pursuing something like this at all, anywhere, is dumb, but in a neighborhood populated by lawyers? That's, like, pathologically dumb.

Posted by: h3 | May 12, 2006 1:28 PM

Amazing. The city very specifically says that it won't enforce the statute against "the plaintiffs," which very obviously leaves open their plan to enforce it against others. A case isn't moot when the defendant voluntarily stops doing something but has the ability to do it again. I hope the city ends up having to pay attorneys fees at the end of all this!

Posted by: Anonymous | May 12, 2006 4:18 PM

So much anger around here. First these loonies want to put up their stupid signs to "get" their neighbor. Now that they can do it, they want to sue the District. What kind of lives are these people leading? What are they teaching their children?

Posted by: Upper Northwest | May 12, 2006 4:19 PM

Good work

Posted by: dc_hater | May 12, 2006 5:46 PM

As a lawyer who has regularly litigated against the District's Corporation Counsel (now fancified as "Attorney General"), I can say that error-filled, incoherent pleadings are a regular product of that office. The office regularly relies upon the normal deference that District courts give to the District government. That doesn't happen so frequently in federal court. I hope the homeowners follow this through.

Posted by: Christopher | May 14, 2006 9:43 AM

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