DETROIT — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan praised Bath Charter Township officials today for protecting their residents' constitutional right to free speech by not enforcing an unconstitutional provision of its political sign ordinance.
"Political signs and our First Amendment rights have been a recurring issue across Michigan for years," said William Fleener, ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorney. "The right for Americans to express their political opinions has long been considered a cornerstone of American democracy. We are glad that Bath Charter Township has taken the proper steps to join the ranks of towns dedicated to protecting their residents' constitutional rights."
On September 29, 2008, a letter was sent to Robert Park, of Bath Charter Township, informing him that his political sign supporting Barack Obama for president may be in violation of a city ordinance, which stated that election signs could not exceed six square feet in area. However real estate signs, according to the ordinance, could be as large as 12 square feet in surface area and construction signs could be up to 32 feet.
After receiving the notice, the 62-year-old painter and artist contacted the ACLU of Michigan Lansing Branch who alerted the township that its sign ordinance was unconstitutional because it treats commercial speech more favorably than political speech. Today, the ACLU received a letter from the township agreeing with the ACLU position.
"On further investigation," stated the Township Attorney in the letter. "We agree the section of the Ordinance referred to by the Township's Compliance Officer is, in fact, not content-neutral, and therefore will not be enforced as written."
The courts have consistently ruled that cities cannot treat political speech less favorably than commercial speech. And in fact, for the past several years, the ACLU has written numerous letters to municipalities across Michigan to amend unconstitutional sign ordinances. The City of Troy opted not to amend its ordinance and was later sued by the ACLU of Michigan. A federal court struck down the Troy ordinance as unconstitutional in 2006.
To read the township's letter to the ACLU, the Township Compliance Officer's notice and the ordinance go to: www.aclumich.org/pdf/bathcharterordinance.pdf
To read the court's opinion in the Troy case, click here.