More study sought regarding political signs on public property 

  • Athol Town Counsel John Barrett discusses possible restrictions on political signs on town properties at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen. Greg Vine

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 2/8/2019 6:00:37 PM

ATHOL — Town Counsel John Barrett told the selectmen he would continue looking at potential wording for a town bylaw prohibiting the posting of political signs on public property, should the board ultimately decide such an ordinance is necessary.

Barrett provided selectboard members with a memo Tuesday night indicating he had looked at several court cases, most of which provided conflicting opinions.

“Initially,” said Barrett, “I asked the board to hold off on making any decisions. Typically, this is something that would be enforced by a zoning bylaw. A new one would need to go through the amendment process.”

“The issue,” he continued, “is that it does involve Constitutional implications; Constitutional law and the First Amendment. And when you get involved in Constitutional law, at least for me, I’ve never found it easy. It gets pretty complicated when you have cases going up to the Supreme Court, and for almost every decision that seems to support your position, there’s another that seems to say ‘no, you can’t do that.’”

Barrett described his memo as a “sampling” of the complexity of the issue. “I guess it would certainly be up to the board members to determine if this was something you as a group wanted to proceed with some regulation of political signs,” said Barrett. “It would be something where I’d have to work with (Town Manager) Shaun (Suhoski) and Planning Director Eric Smith and pull together something to submit to the annual town meeting.”

Barrett said he hoped selectmen didn’t view him as being too pessimistic.

“It’s just that for every action there’s a reaction,” he said. “A case in point is the Needham case which basically prohibited ‘off premises’ signs.” He noted the courts found that this violated the First Amendment because it prohibited some signs but allowed others, mainly those of a commercial nature. The court reasoned that the by-law which allowed ‘commercial’ speech, but prohibited political speech was not ‘content neutral’ and so violated the First Amendment.

“So, I guess the bottom line right now,” he told selectmen, “is that I would request more time. First, I think I need to do more research. And one thing I did want to do, but haven’t had a chance to since the last meeting, is to look at some of the other bylaws, because they didn’t really deal with political signs.”

“If it’s town property,” Barrett continued, “I guess it’s just like a private property; a private property owner would have the right to say, ‘No, I don’t want that sign on my lawn.’ Well, the town should be able to say, ‘No, we don’t want signs on our lawns.’”

Barrett then explained the Supreme Court had upheld a Los Angeles ordinance that prohibited the post of any signs on public property.

“Other cases have said ‘yeah, unless it’s the case of a traditional public forum,’” he said. “Then you get into the weeds trying to determine what is a traditional public forum? One of the areas that’s considered a traditional public forum is parks and commons, public spaces. And I know the board is concerned about the proliferation of political signs in those areas because it makes it very unattractive.”

Barrett said he hoped to craft a proposed bylaw for selectmen to review in time for the annual town meeting.

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