Various constitutionally problematic provisions in North Kingstown’s political sign ordinance have been rendered unenforceable under a consent judgment that has been filed in federal court, settling a lawsuit that the Rhode Island ACLU filed last year against the Town.

The suit, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi, was on behalf of 2010 independent Congressional candidate John O. Matson, who was forced to take down a number of  his  political  signs  in  October  after  being  notified  that  they  violated  the  town’s  zoning restrictions on the size and placement of such signs. A major component of the ACLU’s lawsuit was that the ordinance treats political signs in a discriminatory manner, allowing other types of signs in both residential and commercial areas to be larger and stay up longer. This, the suit argued, “impermissibly infringes on freedom of  speech  based on  content  and  is therefore unconstitutional on its face.”

For example, under the ordinance, political signs could not be larger than six square feet in a residential zone or 20 square feet in a non-residential zone. In contrast, the ordinance allowed construction and contractor signs, holiday signs, banners, and a variety of other signs larger than six square feet in residential areas, and non-political signs of up to 50 square feet were allowed in business and industrial districts.

Under the consent judgment approved by U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi, the Town has agreed it will not subject political signs “to more stringent size or other limitations than that imposed on non-political signs.” The judgment also has the effect of voiding a provision allowing political signs to be posted only within 60 days of an election. The judgment also includes an award of $10,560 in attorney fees.

Before filing suit last year, the RI ACLU wrote town officials pointing out the ordinance’s unconstitutionality, and seeking assurances it would not be used against Matson, who could have faced fines up to $100 a day for each “illegal” sign. However, the Town Manager said the ordinance would be enforced if Matson re-erected the signs he had voluntarily taken down after receiving violation notices. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU obtained a temporary restraining order allowing Matson to re-erect the signs in time for the election.

RI ACLU attorney Sinapi said today: “Posting signs remains one of the simplest and most effective ways for people with limited resources to participate in the political process. The favorable resolution of this suit is a reminder of the importance of political speech and the First Amendment in the electoral process.”