The Court Speaks: D.C.'s Sign Ban Must Die
"Why doesn't the city just fix the problem?"
That's U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan speaking. Wait, there's more:
"No citizen in this city should have to go through what these citizens went through. No one should be confronted with this nonsense. And that's what it is, nonsense."
Good stuff, huh? Yes, it's vindication and more for the American University Park neighbors whose struggle against the District of Columbia's speech police I've been chronicling in the column and here on the big blog.
Quickly, what happened on Ellicott Street NW is that some neighbors got wind of what looked like an attempt by a developer to tear down a house on their block and put up a McMansion in its place. They approached the developer, who wouldn't talk to them, so they took their message to the public, posting signs on their lawns protesting any attempt to build mega-sized houses on their block.
Enter the city, which cited several homeowners for violating the District's sign ordinance, which the city claimed prohibited any signs except those supporting political candidates. This was obviously unconstitutional and absurd and some homeowners took the city to court, where the District has now had its head handed to it by an outraged judge.
The District, after initially defending its boneheaded moves, has now agreed that the law is indeed unconstitutional and needs to be changed. But D.C. says it will take some months to do that, and Judge Sullivan was having none of that. He insisted that the city move now, "on an emergency basis."
"Tell the bureaucrats to get to work and write the law," the judge said. "Given the fact that this is an election year, too, you would think that the people on the city council would be especially sensitive to this issue.... It gets down to people's right to express what they think about houses in a development, what they think about people not picking up dog poop."
Sullivan wanted action--right away. In fact, he sent the city's lawyers out for an hour to see if they could come to some better resolution. The city came back promising not to prosecute or ticket the A.U Park residents and to change the law as fast as they could. The city's lawyer called it "unfortunate" that the residents were ticketed and that they "went through that quagmire."
Eventually, the judge agreed to give the city a week to get rid of the ambiguous sign law. This, he said, "is an issue that potentially affects every homeowner, every renter in the city. The opportunity to express one's views is very important."
The D.C. lawyer agreed: "Yes, it's precious to Americans."
The cause of this problem was the outsourcing of the writing of Washington's building code to a private entity that writes laws for local governments to approve. Nobody noticed that the code actually sought to cancel the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Supposedly, the District is working to scrap that part of the building code.
Don't believe it til you see it in writing. Even as the District's lawyers are heaping promises and apologies on the judge, the city is launching a new war against signs in another part of town. On Capitol Hill, a conservative minister's decision to put a stone marker on his front lawn containing the text of the Ten Commandments has brought the wrath of the District upon him.
As the Post reported over the weekend, the District has chosen this sign for selective enforcement using what a transportation department official called "a public interest balancing test." Translation: The city government doesn't like what the minister has to say, so it is throwing the book at him. Once again, a beleaguered citizen will have to go to court to prove to the city that it cannot tear up the Constitution just because it doesn't like what someone says.
This one is far from over. Judge Sullivan needs to stay tough and keep pushing until the city decides to follow the law and the spirit of an open society.
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