County Alters Law To Comply With Recent ACLU Challenge

SNOW HILL – Free speech concerns took a back seat to worries over untidy yards when the Worcester County Commissioners considered a law lifting the time limit on political signs displayed on private property.

The change in county law follows a decision in federal district court against Baltimore County’s political sign time limit. The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which contended that legislating sign removal interfered with citizens’ constitutional right to free speech.

After the ruling, the ACLU wrote to other Maryland counties with a time limit on their books enquiring about enforcement of the law. While the organization did not threaten a lawsuit if the time limit is not removed, the implication is clear.

With the precedent set in federal court, Worcester County could not win in such a suit and would then be liable for possibly substantial court costs.

“At what point does a political sign become clutter, debris, an eyesore?” said Virgil Shockley, president of the County Commissioners.

Shockley said he feared that the county government would have a hard time keeping the county clean after the elimination of the time limit.

“What’s to prevent somebody from sticking up 12, 20 political signs and leaving them there ‘til they die?” Shockley said.

“I can’t understand what the point of leaving the signs up when the election is over,” said Commissioner Bud Church. “I think the signs need to get out of there as soon as possible.”

It is not fair to neighboring property owners to leave signs up, said Commissioner Jim Purnell.

Traditionally, the county has done little to enforce the time limit on political signs. Any enforcement has been complaint driven. In the past, politicians have taken responsibility for making sure their supporters remove yard signs within the time limit.

“We’re talking about now the property owner’s right,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom.

Someone could leave the sign up to protest a lost election, for example.

Political signs are not just for candidates running for office. “It can be a statement,” he said.

Shockley asked staff if there was any way to add a provision to the legislation requiring damaged signs to be taken down. 

“Not that I know of,” said Ed Tudor, director of Development Review and Permitting.    

If the sign becomes damaged or falls apart, it does fall under a different law, which governs trash removal, but otherwise, there is no recourse.

“They can leave it there forever,” said Tudor.

Ed Lee, a member of the Democratic Central Committee of Worcester County, suggested the commissioners ask the central committees to work with candidates on making sure signs are removed, voluntarily.

“I don’t think so,” said Bloxom. “To even make the suggestion could possibly be perceived as a chilling effect.”

Commissioner Judy Boggs said she spoke to the Baltimore County government and concluded that there is no way around changing the law.

Commissioner Linda Busick wondered how homeowner’s associations, like the Ocean Pines Association, were affected by the court ruling.

Homeowners’ associations tend to have more restrictive sign laws in place than the county, said Bloxom.

“They can also be sued by the ACLU and that’s their problem,” Bloxom said.

“I don’t like this legislation, but we don’t have any choice,” said Boggs.

The commissioners voted unanimously to remove the time limit on political signs from Worcester County law.