Professor challenges Town of Manlius codes for political signs

A lawsuit has been filed against the town of Manlius, challenging the rules for displaying political signs on private property.
Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - A lawsuit has been filed against the town of Manlius, challenging the rules for displaying political signs on private property.

The Center for Competitive Politics filed the suit on behalf of a Syracuse University professor who believes his rights to free speech are being violated.

Dr. David Rubin wasn't happy that his wife was told to remove political signs from their lawn in 2006 because they violated the Manlius town code.

"Oh, I've got to get a form. I've got to fill it out. I've got to take it down to the town hall. I've got to wait, they are going to go through it,” Rubin explained. “Why should I have to do all this?"

Dr. Rubin, a former Dean at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, still teaches First Amendment law. He cited Ladue v. Gilleo, a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision that calls for a "compelling" state interest when regulating political speech.

"This sort of speech is the most protected kind of political speech," Rubin said.

The town code in Manlius says the rules exist, "In order to preserve aesthetics and ensure traffic safety..."

Standard signs can be displayed 30 days before and 7 days after an election. A permit is required.

"Why do I have to wait until 30 days before the election when we have candidates who aren't waiting 30 months before the election and they start to run?" Rubin asked. "You should be able to comment on an election from the point at which an election has started, people are declared candidates, people are raising money, people are circulating petitions, people are doing all the things that they do to run for office. Why should I not people able to speak during this important time when public opinion is being molded...pollsters are out there. This is when judgments are being made.”

Some temporary signs in Manlius have fewer restrictions.

For example, real estate signs can be up for months before a property sells as long as it doesn't pose a public safety hazard. They do have to be removed shortly after a property is sold.

But politics can hit a nerve and many like the idea of limiting how long neighbors can speak their minds with election signs.

"Look, it's green. It is beautiful. The flowers are out. Why put a sign at somebody's house?" said Manlius resident Thomas Corcoran. "I mean it is a beautiful community and why litter it with all these signs?"

"I agree that beautification is important for a town to be concerned about. It is not as important as free speech," said Rubin.

The Center for Competitive Politics shared the complaint with the Town of Manlius in March. Supervisor Ed Theobald says he was surprised by the lawsuit and hopes it can be resolved quickly, but admits the town never responded to the complaint. He wonders why CCP did not attempt to notify the town again. Rubin says they shouldn't have to follow-up.

"When the Supreme Court speaks, it is not up to the Town of Manlius to decide whether it wants to listen," Rubin explained.

"We need to review the law to see where our ordinance fits factually with the existing case law to determine how we are going to respond," said Don Martin, an attorney for the Town of Manlius.

Dr. Rubin hopes other towns and villages in Central New York take the time to review their rules regarding political signs, in order to avoid similar lawsuits.

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