The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of former Congressional candidate Rod Driver, seeking a court order and damages against the Town of Richmond and police chief Raymond Driscoll for repeatedly removing Driver’s political signs from private property during the last election. The suit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi, claims that the defendants’ actions amounted to a willful violation of Driver’s First Amendment rights.

Last August, Driver posted a political sign for his candidacy on the private property of supporters across from the Washington County Fair Grounds in Richmond. The sign was taken down, so Driver replaced it, only to find it taken down again on several occasions. When Driver complained to police chief Driscoll, the chief said he had removed the signs, claiming they violated a state law barring signs “within the limits of a public highway without first obtaining the written consent of the chief of police.”

Although Driver could find no basis for Driscoll’s conclusion that the signs were “within the limits” of Route 112, the state highway at issue, he erected signs further away from the road, only to find them taken down once again. Finally, he erected a sign almost 30 feet away from the centerline of Route 112 and attached a note to Driscoll saying: “This sign is on private property, well outside the highway right of way.” Driscoll let the sign remain, but parked a police cruiser with lights flashing directly in front of and blocking the sign, preventing fairgoers from seeing it.

Noting the importance of residential signs as a method for promoting a political campaign, the lawsuit argues that Driver’s right to free speech was “substantially damaged and curtailed” by the defendants, especially by impairing his ability “to communicate his political candidacy to thousands of potential voters attending the 2006 fair.” The lawsuit argues that the state law cited by Driscoll, by giving him unbridled discretion to decide whether signs can be posted, unconstitutionally allows a government official to “decide who may speak and who may not based upon the content of the speech or the viewpoint of the speaker.” In any event, the suit argues, the signs removed by Driscoll were on private property outside the highway limits. Therefore, they were not subject to regulation under that statute, and Driscoll acted unconstitutionally in removing and blocking the signs without any legal authority.

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring unconstitutional the defendants’ actions and the state law cited by Driscoll; and an award of compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys fees.

Driver said today: “Probably every political candidate has suffered from campaign signs being stolen or vandalized, and in the midst of a campaign there is no time to track down and prosecute the culprits. But who would ever guess that the principal vandal might be the local police chief?” ACLU attorney Sinapi added: “The Founders intended political speech to be at the core of First Amendment freedoms, and the  protection of the First Amendment is at its zenith where speech involves a campaign for political office Mr. Driver was exercising a basic First Amendment right in posting these signs.”