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Selectmen Ask That Dracut’s Political Sign Bylaw Be Reviewed For Constitutionality

Mar 17, 2019 11:50PM ● By Lisa Redmond

Dracut Town Counsel James A. Hall

DRACUT – The town may find itself on the wrong side of the First Amendment after Selectman Joseph DiRocco Jr. raised concerns that the town’s political sign bylaw may be in violation of the Constitution.

As election fever spreads across Dracut with the upcoming May 6 Town Election, DiRocco’s raised this issue at several board meetings after he was sent an article from The Judicial Watch on the topic.

In a 2015 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that regulating signs based on content is unconstitutional. The decision stems from an Arizona case where the town restricted signs that announced the meetings of a nonprofit group.

The regulation required signs be no more than 6-square feet, and only display 12 hours before and one hour after the meeting, according to an article by the Boston-based Anderson Kreiger Law Firm.

This Arizona town also stringently regulated that political signs of a maximum 16-square feet were restricted to 60 days before a primary to 15 days after a general election, according to Anderson Kreiger. This bylaw was also ruled unconstitutional.

The Court did not rule on whether the town’s justifications – aesthetic appeal and traffic safety – were compelling or not. The Court noted that some aspects of the sign code were constitutional, such as its regulation of signs’ size, building materials, lighting, moving parts and portability. It also noted that municipalities have flexibility under its ruling, for example, they can entirely forbid posting signs on public property.

At the March 12 Selectmen’s meeting, Town Counsel James A. Hall said the issue has been on the front burner on and off for 15 years. The gist of the ruling is that the content of temporary political signs is protected under free speech and that political signs should be treated like any other sign, such as a “For Sale’’ sign.

Hall pointed out that Dracut’s political sign bylaw allows signs to be a maximum of 6-feet-square, but the bylaw also dictates “when they (political signs) go up, when they come down,” Hall said.

The political sign bylaw states: “Such signs may be erected no sooner than 30 days prior to the date of election and must be removed not later than seven days after the election. Signs permitted by this By-Law “(a) shall not be artificially illuminated: (b) shall be freestanding and not be attached to a building, tree, utility pole or fence (except that such signs maybe displayed in a window); (c) shall be erected in such a manner that it will or reasonably may be expected not to interfere with, obstruct, confuse or mislead traffic. These signs require no sign permit.’’

Selectman Tony Archinski has also received a complaint about the Constitutionality of bylaw and suggested the town manager “push’’ the Bylaw Review Committee to examine the issue. Archinski suggested either changing or eliminating the political sign bylaw.

“The bottom line is it (the bylaw) could be eliminated,’’ Selectman Chairman Jesse Forcier said.

If the bylaw is changed or eliminated, Hall said he expects some “push back’’ from residents who fear the town may become littered with political signs that stay up long after the election is over.

“No one wants the town peppered with signs,’’ said Selectman Alison Hughs.

Selectman Tami Dristilaris said there was one political sign on Mammoth Road that was up so long it eventually came lose and fell into a swamp.

But the clock is ticking on any type of change. The issue must go before the Bylaw Review Committee, which could submit an article to Town Meeting.

Any changes to the town bylaws must be approved by Town Meeting. There is an April 19 deadline for articles to be submitted Town Clerk before being voted on at the May 11 Town Meeting.

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