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ACLU weighs in on election sign dispute

March 08, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

DARGAN -- An Election Day squabble at the Potomac Valley Fire Co. near Dargan has attracted the interest of state civil liberties advocates and raised a call for a fresh interpretation of a state election law.

Paul Thompson Jr., 44, who lives across the street from the fire hall, says a Washington County election judge cut up and tore down political signs on his property the day of the presidential election in November. The judge cited state law that calls for a 100-foot "no-electioneering" zone around the entrance to each polling place, which in this case included the part of Thompson's property bearing the signs.

But officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland say applying the 100-foot rule to private property is unconstitutional.

"It's certainly a well-intentioned law, to make sure that there isn't intimidation of voters as they approach the polls," said Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of ACLU of Maryland. "I just think ... that justification's not served by applying it to private property where the voters aren't traversing."

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Thompson's right to display political signs on his own property should outweigh any concerns about voter intimidation, Jeon said.

Jeon sent a letter last month to Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel and State Administrator of Elections Linda H. Lamone asking that they take formal action to ensure the incident doesn't happen again.

Kaetzel said she would raise the issue at the county election board's next meeting on April 15.

"That's the first time that's ever happened since I've been here," she said. "We've never really had that problem before."

Roger Schlossberg, the county election board's attorney, said the situation presented a complicated legal dilemma that pits personal property rights and freedom of speech against the sanctity of the voting franchise.

The Attorney General of Maryland has issued two opinions, in 1986 and 1990, saying that the prohibition on campaign signs applies within the specified radius, regardless of whether a sign is on public or private property.

However, advice from the attorney general is not legally binding, and Jeon said she didn't think that interpretation would stand up in court, given case law established since those opinions were issued.

In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the government to interfere with political lawn signs on private property. The case did not involve an electioneering buffer zone, but Jeon said it would violate the 14th Amendment to deny Thompson equal protection just because of the location of his property.

Schlossberg said the election board would ask the Attorney General's Office to revisit the issue and provide an updated opinion.

"I must confess to some doubt that the Attorney General's Office has got it right on this," Schlossberg said, expressing his personal opinion. "It seems to me that it sort of overreaches the personal property rights and the free speech rights of the adjoining property owner."

After the incident last Election Day, Schlossberg advised election workers not to remove signs on private property in the future, Kaetzel said.

Jeon said the ACLU hopes the issue will not have to be tested in court.

"I'm hoping that cooler heads will prevail and we'll be able to work something out," she said.

Thompson said the election judge's actions violated his rights, and embarrassed him in front of his family and neighbors. Their dispute escalated to the point where Thompson called the police, who eventually suggested that he take the signs back down, he said.

Thompson said he contacted the ACLU for help in seeking compensation, but upon further reflection, he decided his only objective was to raise awareness about the situation.

"I just want everyone involved to know that what happened to me was wrong," he said.

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