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Encinitas quietly settles ACLU’s sign lawsuit

Residents can post an unlimited number of campaign yard signs anytime they want as a result of a recent settlement between the city and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Encinitas City Council on Jan. 13 unanimously approved the settlement in open session without comment.

Under prior city rules, property owners were forbidden from putting up more than two temporary yard signs, except for 30 days before an election and three days after, when an unlimited number of signs were allowed.

“Although there is no definitive law on the subject of signage, specifically size and quantity, the Redwood City case weakened the city’s chances of prevailing in a lawsuit with the ACLU,” Mayor Kristin Gaspar said in an email on Jan. 17.

A federal judge in 2006 ruled in favor of a Redwood City warehouse owner by finding that it’s unconstitutional for California to ban political and noncommercial billboards along state highways. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer stated such a limitation violates freedom of expression by forbidding messages based on their content.

The decision nixed a state rule that only allowed political billboards within 90 days of an election and 10 days after.

The ACLU and law firm Morrison Foerster sued the city of Encinitas on behalf of resident Peter Stern to overturn the two-sign cap. Their July lawsuit argues that it’s unconstitutional to single out yard signs during election season.

It goes on to say that a two-sign limit is unreasonable because of the many federal, state and local candidates whom residents might wish to back.

The city passed its prior ordinance with the goal of reducing neighborhood litter, while still allowing free speech.

In an about-face, the council in September directed legal counsel to pursue settlement negotiations, two weeks after giving direction to defend the lawsuit.

The ACLU lawsuit also makes the case that given the power of incumbency, the two-sign limit should be lifted to give political newcomers the chance to get their names out there months before an election.

As part of the settlement, the city will have to pay the ACLU’s legal bills, which totaled $59,500.

Public speakers did not weigh in on the agenda item.


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