Following recent ACLU of Massachusetts correspondence, the Scituate Board of Selectmen has voted to suspend enforcement of a local ordinance prohibiting political signs and suppressing free speech.
The Scituate by-law unconstitutionally regulates political signs staked into the ground, placed in windows, or mounted on vehicles. According to the policy, political signs may be put in place only 30 days before an election, and must be removed within three days after the election. The policy includes no definition of “political”; it is unclear whether it applies to signs with messages like “Make America Great Again,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “All Are Welcome Here.”
The ACLU of Massachusetts sent a letter to Scituate town officials on March 15, more than 60 days before the town’s May 18 Select Board election. According to the letter, the by-law discriminates on the basis of the content of signs and forecloses too much free speech, including political speech. Denying residents the right to post political signs all year round, including for the purpose of increasing name recognition for challengers or protesting actions of incumbents, violates constitutional free speech protections.
“There is no right more fundamental to democracy than the right of an individual to express their personal political views,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “At a time when the federal government seeks to chill free speech, Massachusetts residents should be encouraged to voice their support and opposition for candidates, not silenced. We applaud Town officials for addressing this matter and taking a step toward preserving the First Amendment rights of all Scituate residents.”
Yesterday’s vote impacts the May Select Board election, while laying the groundwork for a more permanent fix by Town Meeting.
The Scituate vote comes after a lawsuit against a similar policy in Holyoke. The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with Prince Lobel, challenged a city ordinance restricting lawn signs during three months of the year and bumper stickers all year round. Filed on behalf of seven Holyoke residents, the lawsuit called for an end to a practice that chills speech. In November, the federal district court granted the ACLU of Massachusetts’ motion for preliminary injunction, preventing the Holyoke ordinance from being enforced.