By Jim Gormley
As the Nov. 4 Election Day approaches, Lexington's residential yards and other locations have been flooded with political campaign signs, posted by candidates for elective offices from senator to coroner.
Many campaign signs are much larger than the 4 foot by 4 foot limit found in Section 14- 52.1(b)(5) of the Lexington Ordinances and Section 17-6(b) of Lexington's Zoning Ordinance, and were erected more than 30 days before the election, the specified time limit.
The ordinances initially provide for notice to the owner to remove an offending sign, followed by fines and up to 12 months in jail for misdemeanor offenses, if the sign is not removed.
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Yet, if a resident calls code enforcement or planning and zoning seeking to have those ordinances enforced, he is told they do not enforce them, because they have received a legal opinion from the law department that the limitations are likely unconstitutional in light of U.S. Supreme Court precedents.
The Urban County Government does not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the indefensible.
In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994), the Supreme Court struck down a Missouri ordinance that purported to ban non-campaign political free speech in a homeowner's front yard (she had placed a sign objecting to American involvement in the first Gulf War).
The court held that any attempts to regulate political speech would be subjected to "strict scrutiny." The only provision Lexington seems to enforce is that the candidates' campaign signs must be on the residence side of the sidewalk, and not in the right-of-way between the sidewalk and the bordering road.
In commercial locations, the signs must be maintained at least 8 feet from any bordering road. All signs can be banned from being posted on public property (including rights-of-way), based on City Council of Los Angeles vs. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789 (1984).
If the government attempts to restrict campaign signs, to have a chance of being upheld, the regulations must apply equally to all signs, both commercial and political, as ruled in Metromedia, Inc. vs. San Diego, 453 U.S. 490, 515 (1981).
As we drive around Lexington, being overwhelmed by the clutter of political yard signs, we should realize that those signs are our First Amendment constitutional rights in action.
Yet, it is unseemly for the Urban County Government to maintain political sign ordinances, when it will not enforce them. Candidates, including incumbents charged with enforcing the ordinances, are left to wonder whether they are violating the law with their campaign signs.
Lexington should either amend the ordinances within constitutional limits, or repeal them outright, so that we are not left to wonder why they are on the books.