ACLU sues South Park over law on political signs
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For now, Joseph Rudolph can display a sign supporting Sen. Barack Obama's presidential run on his front lawn in South Park. Whether it will be allowed to stay there will be decided in U.S. District Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on Dr. Rudolph's behalf yesterday in the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, challenging a section of South Park's code that restricts the display of political signs in the township to 30 days before an election. That would mean Dr. Rudolph couldn't put up his sign until March 23, in advance of Pennsylvania's April 22 primaries.
"Freedom of speech applies all year round," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, "not just 30 days before an election."
U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster issued a temporary injunction yesterday afternoon, allowing Dr. Rudolph to display his sign.
South Park Solicitor Paul Gitnik said that as long as the sign was on his own property, Dr. Rudolph had nothing to worry about.
"The township was not going to fine or do anything to Dr. Rudolph," Mr. Gitnik said.
Maybe not for the Obama sign, but South Park had threatened him with fines before over signs on his lawn.
The ACLU first got involved in Dr. Rudolph's case last March, after he received a letter from the township saying that his sign supporting his son's candidacy for district judge was in violation of two township codes, and if he didn't comply with those codes within 10 days, he would be fined $500 per day.
The letter, sent by code enforcement officer Gary Wargo, cited as a violation: "Erecting a political sign without retaining required permit."
The letter also stated that Dr. Rudolph was violating the section of the code which says political signs cannot be erected more than 30 days before an election.
The ACLU responded with a letter of its own, stating that the township code was in violation of the First Amendment.
The township answered that it would review the code and suspend enforcement.
But in the fall, the township wrote to Dr. Rudolph again, saying its review found no problems with the ordinance, and it "will be enforced as per the directives of the most recent court cases governing same."
Mr. Gitnik said that Dr. Rudolph's sign last March was in the public piece of his lawn -- the portion closest to the street, which is technically township property -- which is why fines were threatened then.
He said Dr. Rudolph then moved the sign back onto his side of the line, which is why the township didn't fine him.
The question the ACLU is raising now concerns the legality of the code and whether its 30-day provision applies to private property and his sign for Mr. Obama.
Dr. Rudolph said yesterday that he put the sign up this year in the exact same place.
But because Dr. Rudolph said he doesn't know where the line is, the temporary injunction allows him to put the sign anywhere on his lawn. The issue will be addressed at a hearing next Wednesday.
Mr. Walczak pointed out that regardless of what the township wants to enforce, the code does not make a public/private property distinction for the 30-day rule.
"If they want to change it, they can do that going forward," Mr. Walczak said.
"The court's not going to listen to an argument over a law that doesn't exist."
The ACLU has successfully sued six Pennsylvania municipalities in the past decade for similar ordinances.
First Published February 20, 2008 12:00 am