PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today on behalf of a candidate running for East Norriton Township Supervisor alleging that the township has an unconstitutional ordinance restricting the placement of political campaign signs that it has been selectively enforcing to favor incumbent candidates. The ACLU has asked the court to issue an emergency injunction ordering the Montgomery County municipality to halt enforcement of the ordinance and to return confiscated signs to the candidate immediately.
"One of the greatest threats to democracy occurs when government uses its power selectively to censor candidates challenging incumbents," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director. "When it comes to freedom of speech, the government cannot play favorites."
The First Amendment lawsuit, filed in U. S. District Court in Philadelphia earlier today, is brought on behalf of Barry Papiernik, a resident of and business owner in East Norriton Township who is running for township supervisor in next Tuesday's Republican primary election. Since last month, Papiernik's signs have been removed from rights of way and even people's front lawns, while signs of incumbent candidates in the same locations remain undisturbed. Papiernik has seen his signs in the back of township trucks and piled in a heap behind the township's municipal building.
Besides the discriminatory enforcement problem, the ACLU alleges that the township's ordinance unduly restricts speech in violation of the First Amendment in many ways. For instance, the ordinance restricts when private homeowners can display political signs on their own property, effectively prohibiting political speech for eight months out of the year; it requires candidates to get a township permit in order to post any signs, which means that a property owner could not post a sign in his or her own yard if the candidate hasn't secured a permit; it limits homeowners to one political sign per property, which means a husband and wife couldn't show support for different candidates; and it applies more restrictive rules to political signs than it does to commercial signs, which the First Amendment forbids.
Vernon Francis, an attorney with the Philadelphia law firm Dechert LLP, who is handling the case pro bono for the ACLU and Papiernik, noted that political signs are an irreplaceable, low-cost way for poorly financed candidates to promote their candidacy: "If you're not an incumbent or backed by powerful and wealthy benefactors, lawns signs are often the only affordable vehicle to communicate with the voters."
The U.S. Supreme Court has declared similar laws restricting political signs to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech and a violation of the First Amendment. In the last 10 years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has successfully sued many communities in the commonwealth for similar First Amendment violations: Upper St. Clair (Allegheny County-1999), Allegheny Township (Westmoreland County-2001), Harborcreek Township (Erie County-2002), the City of Philadelphia (2004), East Stroudsburg (Monroe County-2004), City of Bradford (McKean County-2004), Baldwin Borough (Allegheny County-2005), Littlestown Borough (Adams County-2008), and South Park Township (Allegheny County-2008). Dozens of other communities have amended their laws in response to ACLU inquiries.
In this case, the township has rebuffed Papiernik's attempts to resolve the issue informally and failed to respond to the ACLU's written request last week to stop the unconstitutional restrictions on Papiernik's free-speech rights.
The case, Papiernik v. East Norriton Township, was filed this morning in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. Besides Walczak, cooperating attorneys on the case are Francis and Matthew Sheehan from Dechert LLP. More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found here.