Aldermen would limit political speech

Some Evanston aldermen Monday urged city officials to vigorously enforce an ordinance that limits display of political campaign signs.

The ordinance, adopted in 1987, bars campaign signs posted more than 45 days before or 7 days after an election.

The ordinance only allows signs on private property and limits the total size of such signs to no more than "six square feet per occupancy" — which would appear to limit a single family homeowner to displaying only one standard-size campaign sign at a time.

The ordinance appears to conflict with a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, City of Ladue v. Gilleo,  in which the high court ruled that a municipal ban on political signs on private property violated First Amendment free speech guarantees.

Alderman Anjana Hansen, 9th Ward, asked City clerk Rodney Greene to send letters to all candidates informing them of the ordinance, and Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said city staff should be directed to remove offending signs and fine those who violated the ordinance.

Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, who is running for mayor, indicated that she shared Bernstein’s concerns.

The aldermen’s ire appeared to be directed at mayoral candidate Barnaby Dinges, who said he has distributed more than 200 signs to supporters around town.

Dinges says that after being advised a month ago by the city clerk that signs on public parkways violated the ordinance he retrieved all those signs and now is encouraging supporters to place signs in their windows.

But the sign ordinance makes no distinction between political signs on lawns or those placed in windows.

Dinges says, "It’s almost un-Evanston not to encourage" political speech and noted that during last year’s presidential campaign political signs were displayed around town long before the start of the time period permitted under the ordinance.

"But my signs seem to have gotten to some people," Dinges says. "I find it a little strange with all the financial issues the city is facing that they would be focusing any energy on this."

"It’s unfortunate for the city to even ponder taking action against individuals who wish to express their views in the election," he added.

He said the time restriction in the sign ordinance clearly favors incumbents who have less need to build name recognition among the voters.

In an e-mail message this morning Bernstein said he really only objects to signs placed on public property and when overzealous supporters of his own candidacy have placed them there in the past he’s removed them himself.

Monday night Bernstein also objected to a Dinges supporter handing out literature outside the City Council Chamber and asked Police Chief Richard Eddington to tell the man that action violated a city ordinance.

Bernstein this morning said he was still researching what provision of the city code would support that view.

An Illinois Municipal League legal department report says that while not all municipal restrictions on campaign signs are unconstitutional, they are difficult to defend because of the decision by courts to apply strict scrutiny to any restriction on political speech.

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