The Rhode Island ACLU today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit it filed last October against the Town of West Warwick, challenging on free speech grounds the enforcement of an ordinance that significantly limited the posting of political signs. The suit was filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard Sinapi on behalf of local resident Thomas K. Jones, who at the time was both a state legislative candidate and an outspoken critic of plans to develop a water park in the town.
Under a consent judgment approved today by U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi, the town is barred from enforcing its sign ordinance to prohibit the erection of political signs, and barred from subjecting political signs to size, duration or other restrictions more stringent than those imposed for non-political signs. The Town also has agreed to pay $30,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
Last August, Jones and his supporters began displaying political signs on their property, some promoting his candidacy and others criticizing the proposed construction of the water park. A day before the September primary election, Acting Building Official Frank Venezia hand-delivered notices to Jones and the homeowners advising them that the signs – which were 32 square feet – were too large and violated the Town’s zoning ordinance. They were told to remove the signs within 24 hours or else face financial penalties. The RI ACLU immediately wrote a letter to Venezia, arguing that the ordinance was clearly unconstitutional. The building official’s response was to send out another warning notice to violators. Rather than risk any fines, Jones had all the signs removed.
The suit raised a number of constitutional arguments against the ordinance, and further claimed that it had been enforced against Jones in a discriminatory manner, since dozens of political signs supporting other candidates had not been cited at all. The suit also noted that the ordinance allowed non-political signs to be larger, and be posted longer, than political signs like those Jones had erected. Shortly after the suit was filed, a temporary restraining order was entered, allowing Jones and his supporters to immediately repost political signs on their property.
ACLU volunteer attorney Sinapi said today: “This settlement ensures that town residents will be able to freely exercise their First Amendment right to express their views through the use of political signs without improper government interference. This is an important victory for those who care about freedom of speech.” Thomas Jones added: “This is not just a victory for myself. It is a victory for every citizen of the Town of West Warwick because it sends a powerful message to town officials that they cannot target critics and try to silence them. When they do that to one person, they threaten all of us. I hope town officials will learn a lesson from this and never again violate the free speech rights of the citizens they are supposed to be serving.”