Exercising First Amendment rights—in your own front yard

By Debbie Truong

October 23, 2013

Dean Emeritus David Rubin takes a local town to task for restricting the display of campaign lawn signs

Restrictions on the amount of time political lawn signs can be displayed in a Syracuse suburb have been lifted, thanks to the efforts of David Rubin, dean emeritus of the Newhouse School.

In August, Rubin filed a lawsuit against the Town of Manlius, arguing an ordinance regulating political lawn signs was unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment guarantee of political expression. The action prompted town officials to reexamine and, ultimately, repeal the ordinance. 

Rubin

Pressed by an impending trial date, Manlius officials struck the ordinance from the town's law books at a September 11 board meeting. Town officials said they would not consider a new political sign ordinance until at least the start of 2014 and Rubin dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice early this month.

Against the weight of the lawsuit and imminent trial, Rubin was confident the town would back down from the ordinance, which prohibited the display of lawn signs more than 30 days before an election or seven days after. The lawsuit, which listed Town Supervisor Edmond Theobald and other town officials as defendants, also challenged a code requiring individuals to obtain permits before displaying the signs.

"The town had to decide, are they going to litigate this or not?" said Rubin. "And I think the town realized two things pretty quickly. One, that they were going to lose. And two, it was going to cost them money."

Theobald, who is up for re-election this year, said the ordinance was on the books well before he entered his position as town supervisor, adding that the town never intended to infringe on free speech rights. Theobald said he and legal counsel had conversations about reexamining the ordinance, but were sidetracked by budget season and other work.

"It wasn't really a priority. When you have a budget of 15 million dollars that you have to work with every year… there's a lot more going on than worrying about a political sign ordinance."

Other local towns and villages have started to reconsider similar ordinances as a result of the lawsuit. "I think it's made other municipalities very much aware. If we can be the lead on that I'm comfortable with that," Theobald said.

In the Manlius lawsuit, town officials maintained the ordinance was intended to sustain the town's beautification efforts, a reasoning Rubin strongly rebuked.

"No court is going to accept beautification as more important than the First Amendment. My right to speak on my lawn trumps the city's right to tell me I can't speak because it's ugly." David Rubin

Restrictions on speech are permitted in circumstances that involve a "compelling state interest," such as the distribution, possession or purchase of child pornography. But the Manlius ordinance didn't pass that muster Rubin said, adding that a town's beautification preferences don't supersede an individual's First Amendment rights.

"No court is going to accept beautification as more important than the First Amendment," Rubin said. "My right to speak on my lawn trumps the city's right to tell me I can't speak because it's ugly."

He added, "When it comes to lawn signs and beautification, is beautification enough of a right to take away my right to speak on my lawn? The Supreme Court said 'no.'"

Rubin's stake in the lawsuit extended back to 2006, when a town code enforcer told Rubin’s wife to remove three lawn signs supporting political candidates because they violated the time frame established by the town. In 2012, Rubin penned a guest column in The Post-Standard admonishing the town for the ordinance while citing Supreme Court precedent established in City of Ladue et al. v. Gilleo.

Writing on behalf of a unanimous court, Justice John Paul Stevens established in Ladue v. Gilleo the town’s similar restriction against lawn signs "almost completely foreclosed a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important." In his guest column, Rubin referenced Stevens’ language repeatedly, eventually encouraging readers to "put up a lawn or window sign right now for a candidate of his or her choice."

The column didn't illicit a response from the Town of Manlius, but generated interest from the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, an organization that specializes in defending the First Amendment guarantees to political speech, assembly and petition. The center offered to provide Rubin legal representation at no cost. For his part, Theobald said he wasn’t aware he was supposed to respond to the column but said he is readily accessible to town members over email or phone.

Before filing a lawsuit, Rubin and the center wrote a letter to the town in March, inviting them to overturn the ordinance. After the letter was met with silence from the town, Rubin filed the lawsuit on August 6 in the Northern District New York Court. By September, the town board convened and voted to repeal the law. Currently, there is no existing law in Manlius governing lawn signs, Rubin said. Officials will look to reexamine the ordinance in early 2014, after the budget is settled.

For Rubin, the decision to take up the cause was rooted in the fundamental principles contained in the Constitution.

"I'm a strong believer in freedom of speech and the First Amendment," he said. "I strongly believe that the tendency of government—this government, all government—is to restrict the rights of the people. That the Founding Fathers were right when they wrote the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which give us the basic freedoms, which are all freedoms from what government can do to us. This is what makes America, for me, a great country."

Key Dates

Fall 2008: Rubin and his wife are told by a Town of Manlius code enforcer that they must remove political signs from their front lawn

September 30, 2012: A guest column authored by Rubin criticizing the Town of Manlius ordinance for placing restrictions on lawn signs is published by The Post-Standard

March 2013: Rubin and the Center for Competitive Politics write a letter to the town, inviting them to overturn the ordinance

August 6, 2013: After receiving no response to the letter, Rubin files a lawsuit in New York’s Northern District Court

September 11, 2013: The Town of Manlius board votes to repeal the ordinance

Debbie Truong is a senior majoring in newspaper and online journalism.

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