ACLU lawsuit challenges Encinitas’ campaign sign ordinance

A lawsuit filed July 30 in a federal district court argues that Encinitas’ campaign sign ordinance violates the public’s right to free speech.

City rules prohibit property owners from posting more than two temporary yard signs. That’s with the exception of 30 days before an election and three days after, when an unlimited number of signs are allowed.

The lawsuit, filed by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the law firm Morrison Foerster, seeks to declare the two-sign cap and enforcement of it unconstitutional. And it seeks recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs.

“Political signs are one of the few means of speech guaranteed to reach people in the community,” said David Loy, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “They can change the channel or close the website, but they can’t turn off a sign in someone’s yard.”

Loy said the two-sign cap infringes on First Amendment rights, especially given the numerous federal, state and local candidates whom residents might wish to support in an election. During the 2016 general election, four Encinitas City Council seats alone are open, he added.

“The number of issues and candidates on the ballot will change over time, but it’s always going to be more than two,” Loy said.

With City Hall closed July 31, Mayor Kristin Gaspar and City Attorney Glenn Sabine couldn’t be reached for comment.

The city’s previous sign ordinance only allowed yard signs 30 days before an election (and three days after). Such rules probably wouldn’t hold up under legal scrutiny, an attorney advised the Encinitas City Council.

So, the council adopted the current ordinance last year with the aim of cutting down on litter and visual clutter in neighborhoods, while still allowing free speech.

Although the city’s current rules are less restrictive, the ACLU last fall threatened legal action if the city council didn’t amend its ordinance to drop the two-sign limit.

“Obviously, we weren’t able come to an agreement,” Loy said, declining to go into further details regarding discussions with the city.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of resident Peter Stern, who has complied with Encinitas’ “unconstitutional restriction, although he has wished to post more than two signs,” a press release for the lawsuit states.

Loy said to his knowledge this is the first time the ACLU has sued a city in San Diego County over its campaign sign ordinance.

The lawsuit also argues that the two-sign cap should be lifted to give political newcomers an opportunity to get their name out there.

“Given the power of incumbency—which often includes name recognition resulting from years in office and free media coverage—it is important that non-incumbent candidates and their supporters build name recognition through the especially important means of yard signs,” the lawsuit states.