FRANKFORT — Three weeks before Kentucky's May primary election, a court ruling Tuesday means the state no longer has a ban on electioneering near polling places.
The ruling by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld, in full, an October ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky that declared unconstitutional a state law that bans electioneering within 300 feet of polling places.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway's office said it was reviewing the latest ruling. Conway has said a buffer zone from electioneering is an important safeguard against abuse.
As the state's chief election official, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said she "will continue to work closely with law enforcement officials to ensure that Kentucky's laws that prevent voter intimidation and harassment are enforced and Kentucky's elections remain free and fair."
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"It is now up to the General Assembly to introduce and pass a legislative fix."
The case was brought in June by John Russell, a Campbell County businessman whose campaign signs were removed from the lawn of his business on Election Day in 2012 and 2014.
The signs were removed by sheriff's deputies because they were within 300 feet of a polling place at a church in Cold Spring.
The 6th Circuit held that the state law requiring the buffer was unconstitutional because it didn't contain an exception for private property.
It also said a 300-foot ban is too broad. The U.S. Supreme Court previously has upheld a 100-foot ban.
"We live in America, the land of the free, and the notion that government agents can come onto someone's private property and repeatedly remove signs from that private property based on what those signs say, which is what happened here, is not something I would expect to happen in America," Russell said in a news release. "This type of action cannot be allowed to occur."
Russell and Campbell County Auto Body Inc. were represented by Northern Kentucky attorneys Chris Wiest, Brandon Voelker and Jack Gatlin.
"We are pleased with today's decision by the 6th Circuit, which reaffirms both First Amendment rights and private property rights," Wiest said.
"The electioneering statute is meant to stop interference with the act of voting, but there is no interference with the act of voting by displaying a sign on private property across a highway from a voting location," Voelker said.
In the initial challenge to the state law, U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman issued a permanent injunction, saying the law violated First Amendment speech rights.
The law was designed to keep voters from being harassed by people with signs and handbills.
Wiest said the state has 14 days to ask the appellate court to reverse its decision.
If it doesn't, he said, there will be no electioneering law in Kentucky for May's primary election and November's general election.
"State lawmakers could not address the issue until they are in session, and that is not scheduled to take place again until next January," Wiest said.