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HANCOCK, MD - With Fourth of July celebrations of American liberty upon us, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is expressing concerns that a new Town Charter amendment restricting political yard signs in the small, Western Maryland town of Hancock violates the constitutional rights of residents and political candidates. An ACLU letter urges town officials to rescind the measure in advance of next year's municipal elections. The letter, sent on behalf of a former Hancock Town Council member, makes clear that time limits on political signs violate the First Amendment.
"The front lawn has become hallowed ground for political speech in America," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "While we understand that Hancock officials were concerned about campaign signs cluttering the Town's landscape during the Christmas season, worries about visual clutter simply cannot trump the political free speech rights of candidates and residents."
The Hancock Charter amendment was introduced in February, and took effect in early April. It provides that in connection with municipal elections:
"Candidates shall not place or allow to be placed any campaign signs in Town prior to January 2. All campaign signs shall be removed within 72 hours after the completion of the election."
Hancock resident Nigel Dardar served as a Town Councilman from 2009 to 2012, and is considering a run for office again in 2015. Dardar twice raised concerns regarding the new Charter amendment at town council meetings, but his concerns were disregarded.
"How can a citizen be found guilty of a misdemeanor for posting a political sign on his or her own private property?" asked Dardar. "All residents and candidates of Hancock should be allowed to put signs supporting whatever candidates they wish in their own yards."
The Constitution's protections for political signs are clear: The United States District Court for the District of Maryland repeatedly has ruled that durational limits on political yard signs violate the First Amendment. Most recently, in Bell v. Baltimore County, -- a case brought by the ACLU -- the Court invalidated a Baltimore County law that restricted the length of time residents could display signs before and after an election. Like Hancock's Charter amendment, Baltimore County's law barred residents from posting political campaign signs on their private property beyond a limited window of time surrounding the election.
The Bell ruling followed a 1999 federal district court ruling that struck down a similar provision of the Prince George's County Code. In Curry v. Prince George's County, the court found that, while valid regulations for private, residential property "may include size, shape and location restrictions upon campaign signs, they may not include durational ones."
The ACLU letter urges Hancock officials to revisit the new Charter amendment and rescind these provisions ahead of the 2015 municipal election.