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Federal Court Rejects Town Of Essex Zoning Law Restricting Political Signs

A federal judge today rejected a Town of Essex zoning law that restricted the amount of time a political yard sign could be posted on private property. Sounding an important victory for the rights of private property owners to engage in core political activity, US District Court Judge Gary Sharpe ruled that the law was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech, issuing a final order invalidating the statute in its entirety.

“A political yard sign is a classic example of the core political speech that is at the heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free expression.” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The posting of signs displaying political messages in the months leading up to a political election is a time-honored, traditional method of speaking. Today’s decision is a validation of those principles.”

The Town of Essex adopted a zoning law in 2003 that stated that temporary signs for “a political campaign…may be erected no more than 30 days prior to the event and shall be removed by the sponsor within 7 days after the close of the event.” The Town of Essex began to enforce this ordinance, requiring the removal of political yards signs installed by homeowners, in advance of the 2004 national Presidential election.

On August 24, 2004, the NYCLU advised the Town of Essex its zoning ordinance restricting the use of political signs on front lawns is a violation of the First Amendment. NYCLU called upon the officials there to stop enforcing the law and to change the law at the Town of Essex’s next planning and zoning meeting to reflect constitutional standards. The Town of Essex refused to amend the offending Zoning Law.

Accordingly, a complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York on September 23, 2004. With no facts in dispute, the NYCLU moved for summary judgment as a matter of law. Judge Sharpe issued his ruling invalidating the Essex statute shortly after taking argument on July 21, 2005.

Click here to read the NYCLU memorandum of law in support of its motion for summary judgment.

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