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Sign Wars: The People Sue the City

The D.C. government picked the wrong neighborhood in which to attack free speech and property rights. The residents of Ellicott Street NW in American University Park who put up lawn signs to protest the possibility of a house on their block being torn down and replaced with a McMansion were stunned in March to be cited by the city for violating a building code that supposedly bans signs expressing personal opinions.

With about 4,600 lawyers living within a stone's throw of that block, it was only a matter of time before the lawsuit was filed, and now it has been. Christopher Mohr has filed suit in federal court on behalf of five residents of Ellicott Street (text of the lawsuit after the jump) asserting the neighbors' rights to express their views on their own property and asking the court to stop the city from requiring anyone to get a permit before putting up such a sign.

Lawyers were falling all over each other to take on this battle. Let's see, the First Amendment vs the District's hazy, unsupported contention that its building code lets it pick and choose which messages homeowners can express on their lawns? The city actually argues that it's ok to let residents post lawn signs for political candidates but not for political causes. So, "Fenty for Mayor" is ok, but "No McMansions" or "Stop the War" or even "No Taxation without Representation" would be illegal.

Makes no sense, of course, and that's why the lawyers are so eager to get before a judge. No response from the city as yet, but watch for the District to mount a queasy defense and then find a way to change its mind and get out before a judge slams this one out of the park.

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
_______________________________________
)
LINDA GUSTITUS, )
4716 Ellicott Street, N.W. )
Washington, D.C. 20016, )
)
and )
)
ANDREW McBRIDE, )
4721 Ellicott Street, N.W. )
Washington, D.C. 20016, )
)
and )
)
LYNNE R. PARENTI, )
4725 Ellicott Street, N.W. )
Washington, D.C. 20016, )
)
and )
)
TINA S. RAMOY, )
4725 Ellicott Street, N.W. )
Washington, D.C. 20016, )
)
and )
)
ANN TODD, )
4720 Ellicott Street, N.W. )
Washington, D.C. 20016, )
)
Plaintiffs, )
)
v. ) Case No. ___________________
)
ANTHONY A. WILLIAMS, )
in his official capacity )
as Mayor of the District of Columbia, )
John A. Wilson Building )
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. )
Sixth Floor )
Washington, D.C. 20004 )
)
and )
)
PATRICK J. CANAVAN, )
in his official capacity )
as Director of the Department of )
Consumer and Regulatory Affairs )
of the District of Columbia )
941 North Capitol Street, N.E. )
Washington, D.C. 20002 )
)
and )
)
ROBERT J. SPAGNOLETTI, )
in his official capacity )
as Attorney General for the )
District of Columbia )
John A. Wilson Building )
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. )
Sixth Floor )
Washington, D.C. 20004 )
)
Defendants. )
_______________________________________)

COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs Linda Gustitus, Andrew McBride, Lynne R. Parenti, Tina S. Ramoy, and Ann Todd by and through their attorney, Christopher A. Mohr, respectfully allege as follows:
INTRODUCTORY STATEMENT
1. This is a lawsuit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to protect Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. Plaintiffs have displayed, on the lawns and porches of their homes, reasonably-sized signs protesting the decisions of the D.C. Zoning Administrator and the actions of a real estate developer, which Plaintiffs believe will adversely impact the aesthetics of their neighborhood in a significant manner. The District of Columbia has threatened Plaintiffs with severe civil and criminal penalties, alleging that the signs are in violation of the building code, but the District has not brought similar charges against the owners of the numerous political signs on other yards in the neighborhood. Plaintiffs' good faith efforts to obtain permits for their signs were unsuccessful, and they currently fear civil and criminal enforcement. Plaintiffs seek from this Court protection from Defendants' enforcement of these unconstitutional regulations and vindication of their First Amendment rights.
PARTIES
2. Plaintiffs Linda Gustitus, Andrew McBride, Lynne R. Parenti, Tina S. Ramoy, and Ann Todd are all citizens of the United States and residents of the District of Columbia.
3. Defendant Dr. Patrick J. Canavan is the Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia. Defendant Robert J. Spagnoletti is the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Defendant Anthony A. Williams is the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Defendants are responsible for the enforcement of the Municipal Regulations of the District of Columbia, including D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 12, § 3701 et seq. and D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 24, § 108 et seq.
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
4. This case arises under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 2201 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended). The Court may grant declaratory relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 and Rule 57 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP").
5. The Court has personal jurisdiction over the Defendants.
6. Venue is proper in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391.
STANDING
7. Plaintiffs have standing to bring and maintain this action because their activities have been, and will continue to be, directly affected by 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108. All of the Plaintiffs, except for Ms. Todd, has a protest sign on their residential property. Plaintiffs plan to leave the signs on their property for the indefinite future.
8. Ms. Todd wishes to put up a protest sign on her property, but fears government retaliation.
9. The Building and Land Regulations Administration at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia has threatened to enforce 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 against Plaintiffs. In addition, Plaintiffs' constitutional rights to freedom of expression have been chilled by these regulations.
10. As discussed below, 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 have caused each of the Plaintiffs concrete and particularized injuries to their freedom of expression. The chilling effect of these laws is an actual, present injury, and the threat of enforcement against Plaintiffs who violate the laws causes imminent and irreparable injury. Therefore, Plaintiffs have suffered an injury in fact, and this injury has been caused by their fear of prosecution by Defendants Canavan, Spagnoletti, and Williams for violations of 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108. These injuries can be redressed by a declaratory judgment that these regulations are unconstitutional and by preliminary and permanent injunctive relief against the civil or criminal enforcement of these regulations.
BACKGROUND FACTS
11. Plaintiffs are all residents of the neighborhood known as "American University Park" in the Northwest section of the District of Columbia. Linda Gustitus resides at 4716 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016. Andrew McBride resides at 4721 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016. Lynne R. Parenti and Tina S. Ramoy both reside at 4725 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016. Ann Todd resides at 4720 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016.
12. Plaintiffs chose to live in the A.U. Park neighborhood because the houses have spacious yards and because there is a significant amount of space between the houses. Plaintiffs believe that this spaciousness increases both the aesthetic appeal and the market value of their homes.
13. All of Plaintiffs' homes, and all of the homes in the surrounding neighborhood, including the property at 4717 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016, are zoned "R 1 B" by the District of Columbia.
14. On or around December 17, 2005, the District of Columbia Zoning Administrator made a decision to allow the subdivision of the property at 4717 Ellicott Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016 in violation of the fifty-foot lot width requirement for properties zoned "R 1 B."
15. Plaintiffs believe that the Zoning Administrator's decision was wrong.
16. Between December 2005 and March 2006, Plaintiffs and other neighborhood residents learned of the Zoning Administrator's decision to allow for the subdivision of the property at 4717 Ellicott Street, N.W. and the possible construction of two houses where one currently sits.
17. Plaintiffs believe that the Zoning Administrator's decision to allow for the subdivision of the property at 4717 Ellicott Street, N.W. and the pending development of the subdivided lots will adversely impact the aesthetic appeal of their neighborhood and the market value of their homes.
18. In an effort to raise awareness among their neighbors about the Zoning Administrator's decision and its effects on the neighborhood, on or before March 4, 2006, Plaintiffs Gustitus, McBride, Parenti, and Ramoy each constructed and posted signs of protest on their property.
19. Plaintiff Linda Gustitus attached a sign to the railing of her front porch reading "Keep the Park in AU Park." The sign is made of black paint on unpainted plywood.
20. Plaintiff McBride placed a sign in his front yard reading "Save AU Park, No Split Lots." The sign is made of black paint on unpainted plywood and is 2' high and 4' wide.
21. Plaintiffs Parenti and Ramoy placed a sign on their front lawn reading "Save AU Park, No McMansions." The sign is made of black paint on unpainted plywood and is 2' high and 4' wide.
22. Other neighborhood residents have also placed similar protest signs on their property.
23. Plaintiff Todd has a sign on her property indicating her support for a mayoral candidate in the upcoming city elections.
24. On March 4, 2006, Plaintiffs Gustitus, McBride, and Ramoy each received a "Notice of Violation and Notice to Abate" ("Notice") from the Building and Land Regulations Administration at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia.
25. All of the Notices indicated that each of Plaintiffs' properties was inspected at 12:15 pm on February 23, 2006.
26. All of the Notices indicated that Plaintiffs were in violation of Title 12, Section 105.1.8 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations.
27. All of the Notices state Plaintiffs' violation as follows: "SIGN PERMITS: A SIGN PERMIT IS REQUIRED TO INSTALL OR ALTER A SIGN OR OTHER ADVERTISING DEVICES."
28. All of the Notices state that the "REQUIRED CORRECTIVE ACTION" that must be taken by Plaintiffs is to "OBTAIN A PERMIT FOR SIGN ON PROPERTY."
29. All of the Notices state the time for compliance and the potential penalties as follows: "THE CITED VIOLATION(S) MUST BE ABATED AS ORDERED WITHIN . . . 15 DAYS FROM RECEIPT OF THIS NOTICE. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN THIS NOTICE BEING FORWARDED TO ENFORCEMENT FOR ACTION. SUBJECT TO A $2,000 FINE."
30. All of the notices indicate that the inspector was Olgie Antoine, and all of the notices are dated February 24, 2006.
31. All of the Notices were accompanied by a "FAILURE TO CORRECT VIOLATIONS" document, which indicates that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia "will conduct a re-inspection of the property on or around the time and/or date you are required to complete the corrections." The document further specifies potential penalties for failure to correct or abate the violation, including the costs of repair and "criminal prosecution and punishment for having caused or allowed such unlawful condition to arise or for having failed or refused to correct the same."
32. In response to the Notices, Plaintiffs Gustitus, Parenti, and Ramoy tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to obtain permits for their signs from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia.
33. 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701.9.1 allows for the issuance of permits for signs in residential districts.
34. On March 20, 2006, after being denied a permit by the Building and Land Regulations Administration at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia, Plaintiff Gustitus wrote a letter to the Office of Administrative Hearings requesting a hearing on the Notice and the denial of her permit request.
35. The time for compliance indicated in the Notice has passed and, because she was unable to acquire a permit for her sign, Plaintiff Gustitus fears civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance.
36. On March 17, 2006, Plaintiff Parenti and Plaintiff Ramoy wrote a letter to the Office of Administrative Hearings requesting a hearing on the Notice and the denial of their permit request.
37. The time for compliance indicated in the Notice has passed and, because they were unable to acquire a permit for their sign, Plaintiffs Parenti and Ramoy fear civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance.
38. On or about March 16, 2006, after speaking with Plaintiffs Parenti and Ramoy and learning of their inability to receive a permit for their sign, Plaintiff McBride wrote a letter to the Office of Administrative Hearings requesting a hearing on the Notice.
39. The time for compliance indicated in the Notice has passed and, because he was unable to acquire a permit for his sign, Plaintiff McBride fears civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance.
40. In March 2006, Plaintiff Todd was in the process of making a protest sign similar to her neighbors' when she learned that the District had issued citations against some of her neighbors for their signs.
41. Because of the penalties threatened against her neighbors, Plaintiff Todd stopped making her sign, because she was frightened by the District's actions against her neighbors who were expressing their views in protest of the city's zoning decision.
42. Plaintiff Todd would still like to erect her own protest sign, but has not done so out of fear of civil and criminal penalties.
43. The District of Columbia outsourced the drafting of its Building Code - including the provisions regulation speech of District residents in their homes - to the International Code Counsel, a private, nongovernmental organization. See 51 D.C. Reg. 292 (Jan. 9, 2004); 50 D.C. Reg. 6454 (Aug. 8, 2003).
COUNT NO. 1:
FOR A DECLARATION THAT 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 AND
24 D.C.M.R. § 108 VIOLATE THE FIRST AMENDMENT ON THEIR FACE

44. Plaintiffs reallege Paragraphs 1 through 43.
45. Defendants Dr. Patrick J. Canavan, Robert J. Spagnoletti, and Anthony A. Williams are government officials of the District of Columbia and therefore subject to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; they are subject to suit for alleged violation of Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights by virtue of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended) and D.C. Code § 1-201.02 et seq.
46. Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Defendants, in their official capacity as officials of the District of Columbia, may not abridge, directly or indirectly, the freedom of expression of members of the public such as Plaintiffs Linda Gustitus, Andrew McBride, Lynne R. Parenti, Tina S. Ramoy, and Ann Todd. 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 abridge Plaintiffs' freedom of expression by threatening civil and criminal penalties for their placement of constitutionally protected protest signs on their property.
47. 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 are content-based restrictions on speech because other sections of Title 12 offer exceptions for Real Estate signs (§§ 3107.3.5.7 and 3107.16), signs for open houses (§ 3107.6.6), church bulletins (§ 3107.9.5.4), and apartment house signs (§ 3107.9.5.6), but there are no exceptions for political signs or protest signs.
48. The availability of a permit under 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 is subject to the standardless discretion of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of the District of Columbia.
49. Defendants' conduct is actionable under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended).
50. As a result of Defendants' violations of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer injury.
51. An actual controversy has arisen and now exists between Plaintiffs and Defendants. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202, Plaintiffs are entitled to a declaration of their rights and injunctive relief preventing the District of Columbia from any civil or criminal penalties for the display of their protest signs, or in any other manner preventing them from displaying their protest signs.
COUNT NO. 2:
FOR A DECLARATION THAT DEFENDANTS' APPLICATION OF
12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 AND 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT

52. Plaintiffs reallege Paragraphs 1 through 43.
53. Defendants Dr. Patrick J. Canavan, Robert J. Spagnoletti, and Anthony A. Williams are government officials of the District of Columbia and therefore subject to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; they are subject to suit for alleged violation of Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights by virtue of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended) and D.C. Code § 1-201.02 et seq.
54. Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Defendants, in their official capacity as officials of the District of Columbia, may not abridge, directly or indirectly, the freedom of expression of members of the public such as Plaintiffs Linda Gustitus, Andrew McBride, Lynne R. Parenti, Tina S. Ramoy, and Ann Todd. By enforcing or threatening to enforce 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108, and threatening severe penalties for Plaintiffs display of their protest signs on their residential property, Defendants have prevented Plaintiffs from exercising their rights to freedom of expression, and thereby violated Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.
55. Defendants' conduct is actionable under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended).
56. As a result of Defendants' violations of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer injury.
57. An actual controversy has arisen and now exists between Plaintiffs and Defendants. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202, Plaintiffs are entitled to a declaration of their rights and injunctive relief preventing the District of Columbia from any civil or criminal penalties for the display of their protest signs, or in any other manner preventing them from displaying their protest signs.

COUNT NO. 3:
FOR A DECLARATION THAT THE DISTRICT'S SIGN REGULATIONS DENY PLAINTIFFS THEIR DUE PROCESS RIGHTS

58. Plaintiffs reallege paragraphs 1 to 43.
59. Defendants are government officials of the District of Columbia and are subject to Due process Clause of the Fifth Amendment (Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954)) and are amenable to suit for violation of Plaintiffs' rights to due process of the laws by virtue of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended) and D.C. Code § 1-102 et seq.
60. Under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, (see Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954)) the District of Columbia may not discriminate against signage based on the message expressed in such signs or the identity of the speaker.
61. Defendants' conduct is actionable under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (as amended).
62. As a result of Defendants' violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer injury.
63. An actual controversy has arisen and now exists between Plaintiffs and Defendants. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 (as amended) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201 and 2202, Plaintiffs are entitled to a declaration of their rights and injunctive relief preventing the District of Columbia from enforcing any civil or criminal penalties for the display of their protest signs, or in any other manner preventing them from displaying their protest signs.

PRAYER FOR RELIEF

WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs Linda Gustitus, Andrew McBride, Lynne R. Parenti, Tina S. Ramoy, and Ann Todd respectfully request that the Court:
a. Issue a Declaratory Judgment declaring the rights and responsibilities of the parties to this action, and particularly declaring that 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 et seq. are either unconstitutional on their face and violate Plaintiffs' rights under the First Amendment, or that Defendants' application of those regulations to prevent Plaintiffs' display of their protest signs is unconstitutional and violates Plaintiffs' rights under the First Amendment;
b. Preliminarily and permanently enjoin the District of Columbia and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs from imposing any civil or criminal penalties under 12 D.C.M.R. § 3701 and 24 D.C.M.R. § 108 based on their placing protest signs on their residential property;
c. Award Plaintiffs their reasonable attorney's fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988; and
d. Grant to Plaintiffs such other, further, and different relief as may be just and proper.

Respectfully submitted,


Dated: ____________________________ By: ___________________________________

Christopher A Mohr
D.C. Bar No.458599
MEYER, KLIPPER & MOHR, PLLC
923 Fifteenth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel.: 202-637-0850
Fax.: 202-637-0851

COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFFS

By Marc Fisher |  May 9, 2006; 7:19 AM ET
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Comments

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The case was actually filed in Federal court, not DC Superior Court.

Posted by: random reader | May 9, 2006 9:54 AM

Let's hope they take the city to the cleaners.

Posted by: Civil Libertarian | May 9, 2006 10:45 AM

That the city also used to have a rule against gathering and singing within 500 feet of a foreign embassy. That's why anti-apartheid protestors were arrested for singing "We Shall Overcome" under TransAfrica's tutelage years ago.

Silly little rule, but TransAfrica didn't want to challenge it because they wanted the arrests.

Finally, some Jewish rabbis got arrested for protesting anti-semitism outside the then-Soviet embassy. They challenge the rule. And the Supreme Court, in a case called Bund, of course said to the city: you cannot do that.

Wow, this is so much worse. One's own yard! And content-regulation of the sign. It's hilarious.

Posted by: WeShouldRecall | May 9, 2006 11:04 AM

It is exactly this kind of nonsense that keeps the District from being seriously considered for statehood. This stuff and six other words:Senator Marion Barry; Senator Jesse Jackson

Posted by: jmsbh | May 9, 2006 12:00 PM

I agree this is a fairly stupid move on the District's part.

But we don't restrict democracy based on stupidity. If we did, I doubt a single region in the US would ever actually get democracy.

Call this what it is - a boneheaded move. But it's heavyhanded to say things like this are reason enough to deny DC citizens democracy.

After all, our boys are dying in Iraq just like everybody else.

Posted by: Hillman | May 9, 2006 12:06 PM

I agree about the slippery slope on free speech, but most of these signs do have the effect of creating a lot of clutter. We wouldn't want to let everyone to advertise their business, or rent out their front lawn for advertising. I realize we can draw the line between political and commercial speech, but that line doesn't prevent transforming our sylvan neighborhoods into a "billboard" jungle.

There are "time, place, and manner restrictions" for even 1st Amendment protected speech, and I would argue that keeping our residential front lawns and porches free of such clutter is a good such restriction. Analogously, we have the right to freedom of religion, but -- to protect the essence of residential nighborhoods -- can't put up a church just anywhere if an area isn't zoned for it.

Posted by: Alternative view | May 9, 2006 12:31 PM

You know, for once the District is trying to do the right thing. Why should this handful of clueless trolls crap up a nice street with a bunch of dumb signs just because one of their neighbors wants to improve her property? These ragamuffins should move to some no-growth area on the Eastern Shore of Virginia where they won't be threatened by their neigbors' affluence.

Posted by: AU Parker | May 9, 2006 1:08 PM

I can only wonder why the person who decided to apply this regulation to a neighborhood full of lawyers didn't think-- 'Hmm. Is this a good idea?'

Posted by: Can only wonder | May 9, 2006 1:20 PM

Why are all the plaintiffs, save one, women? Are they the only ones with enough time on their hands that they feel like they need to put up these offensive signs to fill their lives? Didn't we used to call women like this "busybodies?" What would be the right term today?

Posted by: Wondering | May 9, 2006 1:24 PM

Civic activists, Archie.

Posted by: Civil Libertarian | May 9, 2006 1:41 PM

What's annoying to me as a taxpayer is not so much that the DC government makes boneheaded moves, it's the way they react. Rather than admitting a mistake and making it right, they fight to the bitter end, insisting that they're right, and ultimately worsening the situation and sticking the taxpayers with a bigger tab when they get their hat handed to them in court. I'm thinking of the special ed lawsuits, the Pershing Park arrests, the Peter Craig property tax suit.

Posted by: Taxpayer | May 9, 2006 3:02 PM

Putting up signs can be both legal constitutionally and very incorrect in terms of message. It's like posting signs that say "Stop immigrants from taking American jobs". I'll defend anyone's right to post such signs, even if I strongly disagree with them. As for the message of stopping mansions? Why must people worry so much about the type of houses other people build on their own property? It's ironic that people protesting others' use of their property would get all upset someone might tell them what signs to post. A neighborhood (not a legal construct last time I checked) should not have the right to restrict sign content OR architectural style.

Posted by: J from Bethesda | May 9, 2006 3:05 PM

Go plaintiffs! Bring the pain!

With all the lawyers floating around out here, DC couldn't figure out a way to incorporate First Amendment protections into the DCRA sign code?

And jsmbh, if stupidity was a basis for limiting congressional representation, this country would be fuller of holes than a truckload of Swiss cheese, so save your tired Marion Barry/Jesse Jackson crap.

When someone tries to take representation from San Diego because of the crimes Duke Cunningham committed, or Youngstown for Jim Traficant's, or Rhode Island for Patrick Kennedy's drug troubles or Sugar Land, Texas for Tom DeLay's potential crimes, then we can talk.

Capice?

Posted by: victor j | May 9, 2006 4:33 PM

Save the taxpayers some money and have the city council revoke this idiotic law before it leads to even more embarrassment for the city.

Posted by: Tired of It | May 9, 2006 4:43 PM

Alternative view: The problem with your anti-clutter argument is that if a government entity wants to ban all signs (on the basis of clutter, or whatever), that's fine. But if the regulation says, as it apparently does, that real estate signs are OK but political signs are not, that's content-based regulation and therefore a no-no under the First Amendment.

I live in St. Louis, and back in the early 1990s a similar case arose in one of our suburbs. The city regulation was very similar to the one here: the anti-sign ordinance had exceptions for real estate and advertising signs, but not political speech. (The protest signs in question were against the *first* Gulf war, which gives you an idea of how long ago it was.)

The city got taken to federal court, and lost at every turn, including a 9-0 spanking by the Supreme Court. The mayor of the suburb in question, who had pushed the matter all the way through the courts, is an alumna of my law school. Not too long after the litigation was over, she received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the school. I was one of many alumni who wondered why the school couldn't instead have honored somebody who actually paid attention in her constitutional law classes...

Posted by: Dave | May 9, 2006 5:08 PM

It's really not a surprise that the city decided to show up and fine residents for posting signs complaining about proposed construction project. Nor would I be surprised if it came out that the city fined these residents at the behest of the construction firm. This city has jumped right into bed with these firms. Strangely enough, I don't remember a certain Georgetown resident being fined for hanging a banner on the back of his house that overlooked the Exxon station located at the base of Key Bridge which stated, "Rember the Valdez." That banner remained in place for years.

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Although it's a blindingly sunny summer day just before noon, inside a murky Northeast Baltimore pool hall it feels like a dreary 3 a.m. A heated round of table tennis goes down in the ping-pong room, but the hall practically echoes thanks to its emptiness. All potential sharks and casual players have long split. And Valdez Fisher is just about to begin his daily four-hour workout.

"After work I usually come here and play," he says with his personal pool cue in hand, rocking a three-finger billiard glove, and setting up a game of nine ball. "I'm not that good. I just really love the game."

Around his midnight-to-9 a.m. gig as a bail bondsman on East Lexington Street, the 32-year-old father of two found time to write and self-publish his motivational self-help book I Ain't Bitin' My Tongue. And since he put it out in August 2005, Fisher has hawked his book to everyone he thinks should be paying attention. Everyone.

He has sent out more than 35,000 e-mails to local media. In addition to City Paper, he has e-mailed The Sun, The Examiner, Baltimore Afro-American, Baltimore Times, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Boston Herald, and more. "I don't think there's any publication I haven't contacted" he says.

Fisher's e-mail address was probably added to Oprah Winfrey's spam filter months ago. "I've sent e-mails out even to the sports sections," he says. "Just on the off chance that someone will get it and take it to the right department. So far you're some of the only people who have shown interest."

The fact that Fisher has hustled as hard as he has for as long as he has makes this congenial local author rather remarkable. Most people stop banging their heads against the proverbial wall when the wall doesn't budge. But it's easy to understand why Fisher hasn't received much attention yet. Even by the low standards of self-publishing, Ain't Bitin' looks amateurish with its large type and a cover photo that looks like a camera-phone self-portrait. And during this era when anybody can pay to have his or her writing published as a book, who has the time to wade through it all to separate good writers from inflated egos? Books do get judged by their covers.

The real kicker is that once you get past the self-publishing stigma, Fisher reveals himself to be an interesting writer whose story is fascinating, just maybe not in the way that he tells it. "It's about the residual aftershocks of poor choices," Fisher says of Ain't Bitin'. It's a phrase he mentions often, though it's not exactly clear why. Maybe Fisher just thinks it sounds cool, or perhaps he simply can't think of a better expression. In any case, "the residual aftershocks of poor choices" is so much the central theme of his book that he he should have titled his book that.

"I mean, it's a passageway through my life," Fisher says. "I was young, I fell in love with this girl and I married her, we had children, and everything was there. And then infidelity set in."

On a simple level, Fisher's book offers a moral lesson that many of us already know: Choices are critical. Fisher assumes the role of confessional moralist as author. He tells his story as cautionary tale, calm and collected, and seems proud to dish out the dirt on himself. He's proud because after he stumbled he picked himself back up.

The basic story is just what he says above--he was in love, he got married, had a great six-year relationship, fathered two beautiful little girls, and then threw it all away to get laid. Even though Fisher's divorce was some time ago--he says he and his ex have been "officially" over since 1999--and he has since remarried, it's obvious by his demeanor that his poor choices continue to haunt him.

"You can apologize but you can never retract what was felt at the time of the infraction," he says. "It's irrevocable because once it's out there it's out there."

In person Fisher possesses a childlike quality, partly because of his round face and chunky frame but also due to his absolute honesty. His blunt sense of right and wrong is the type of reasoning you expect from a child, one who tells you straight-up that "hitting people is bad" or that "talking to people is nicer than screaming at them.

"That's why we have to watch what we say, how we interact with each other, how we address one another, how we treat one another, because sometimes these scars can linger forever," Fisher says. "I'm not glad it all happened, but in a way I'm glad I ended up with more substance to share. Some people want to just see their name in print, but the bottom line is that the most important part of public speaking or writing is having something to say."

Fisher has plenty to say. A good deal of Ain't Bitin' reads like a journal, with Fisher articulating the personal revelations he's had, as well as critiquing African-American men and black people in general. "The response [to the book] has been good," he says. "[But] I've offended some people. I've received letters in from African-American readers who were offended that I said that a lot of inner-city families don't have $500 saved--but that's real, isn't it?"

It is--and that's his point. Just as his sense of honesty draws clear lines between right and wrong, Fisher's vision of reality is inviolate. It is that which matters most, and his declarative statements about how he interprets reality at times eloquently reiterate common sense. "African-Americans are the undisputed heavyweight consumers of the world," he says. "We buy everything--phones with navigational systems built in, rims that keep spinning after the car stops. And that stuff is fine if that's what you want to do--but are your priorities in order? Are you a homeowner or are you going to be renting for the next 60 years? Is your credit straight? Have you taken the money you've spent on these rims to repair your credit? Have you gotten a copy of your credit report and begun to eliminate these judgments? Do you have health insurance?"

Fisher isn't just preaching to hear his own voice. As a bondsman six nights a week for the past 10 years, he sees firsthand the products of poor decision-making. "Every now and then there's someone driving with a suspended license and they had no idea the license was suspended, but that's the exception," he says of the people he meets on the job. "Predominantly, my clients are African-American men between 18 and 35, and it thrives on old money. What I mean by that is that we've bailed out these people's grandparents, their parents, and now were bailing them out. It's a revolving door of poor choices."

Poor choices--his book's reoccurring theme appears again in his conversation, right before he goes into the hustling. "[My book is] all about choices," Fisher says. "Workplace disgruntlement, wealth management--it's life in 119 pages. That's what makes it so unique. It's large print, it's concise, and it's comical, and I designed it to be that way. I don't like to read boring stuff and I'm sure nobody else does either.

"This is a gambler's game," he continues, setting up another nine-ball game. Fisher himself doesn't gamble, and watching a dude who hustles his book like mad rack-up a bona fide hustler's game is pretty hysterical. You suspect that he realizes it, too, because right after he takes a shot he moves seamlessly into discussing the high stakes and low payoff of being a one-man ad campaign screaming into the wind and not being heard.

"Overall, I am very disappointed in the media," he says. "They're quick to cover crime, [but] they're reluctant to assist a 31-year-old African-American male in the spreading of a motivational book designed to enhance the quality of life. I've written a motivational book that brings an awareness to choices, to the sanctity of marriage, the many ways we neglect our children and not even realize it. People only focus on the negative."

As he gets going, the calm, collected Fisher momentarily evaporates, replaced by Fisher the West Baltimore boy, complete with thick local accent. "I help people," he says. "You know I even have my own scholarship? Every year I get high-school kids to write me a letter, just about them, and I pick the best letter and give that kid $1,000 out of my own pocket! But I bet you if I went and robbed a bank it would be on every channel in the country, like, `Local writer goes berserk.' What could've happened? Why is he doing this? And they'll be like, `We want to interview him.' I'm telling you--I'd be on every channel."

Part of his frustration is fueled by the simple truth of it--the man has a point. But it also comes from Fisher's belief that his book could be invaluable to the community, especially because he feels that people waste too much time reading crap. "I don't believe in fiction," he says. "I'm sure people will disagree, but fiction is no more than a sedative, something that helps people escape from reality. And we have to be dealing with reality on a daily basis because it's never going to go away. People escape into books about eroticism and science fiction, but at the end of the day, where's the nutritional value for the soul?"

Fisher presents his soul nutrition as a breezy read, perfect for sixth graders, though he goes a little buck-wild with his thesaurus sometimes--"Malevolent commentary is especially destructive, when it derives from mouths of people we trust," he writes. He manages to make a few interesting points about the psychology of domestic abuse, money management, communication, and marriage. The book is basically advanced common sense in super-florid language that is ideally suited for kids who don't have anyone around to tell them that you shouldn't cheat on your spouse, that you need to be aware of your credit score, etc.

It can, and does, speak to young people. "Every family I bail out, I offer a book to," he says. "I'm not a pressure salesman, but I tell them that if they have a young child in their home at an impressionable age, they might want to take a look at this. One family called me back and said their daughter never read a book in her life and she read mine cover to cover."

Some of Ain't Bitin' is, frankly, a little weird--randomly personal and intimate the way teenagers' journals are. After four chapters of autobiography Fisher includes a few poems, some photos of his family, a list of his favorite words--the "Valdezinary"--and transcripts of his e-mail conversations with stunt man Lance Warlock, the son of world-renowned stunt man Dick Warlock and author of his book's forward. Lance Warlock is probably best known for his uncredited role as "Radio-Carrying Teen" in Halloween 2. Seriously. ("I'm just a big fan of the Halloween movies," Fisher says.)

That's just Fisher, letting it all hang out. Good or bad, weird or funny, if he feels it then, for him, it possesses some element of honesty that makes it real. And that lack of self-censoring is what, occasionally, unwinds something that, through the prism of his experiential calculus, starts to feel like profound truth. "One of the major differences between African-American families and Caucasian families is that a lot of Caucasians are left something to have a head start with," Fisher says. "They're left property, trust funds. We leave behind nothing. Our idea of being prosperous is maintaining. The rent's paid, the car's paid, we doing good.

"We have to change our way of thinking," he continues. "That's not productive. If you die and you don't leave the next generation anything to give them a head start, you've really had a failed existence. It's a harsh way to put it, but it's real."

Posted by: Baltimore City Paper | September 23, 2006 9:57 AM

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