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Laramie has a Free Speech Problem

This article was first published in the Laramie Boomerang on August 10, 2014. 

The city of Laramie is quick to remind residents where they cannot place political signs. However, the city should announce that residents may place political signs supporting any candidate.

As written, the city’s political sign regulations functionally treat signs differently depending on which candidate the political sign supports. Such regulations more closely resemble rules dictators use than the American constitutional system of democracy.

One defining characteristic of American democracy is the notion that everyone who seeks public office is subject to the same rules while campaigning. This characteristic stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world where the political party in power can use regulatory censorship, and even imprisonment, to exclude opposition party candidates from the electoral process. The U.S. and Wyoming constitutions preserve our competitive system for selecting those who govern us by protecting the speech and association rights of all citizens. The most notable speech protection is found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law …a bridging the freedom of speech …” Courts enforce this freedom with special vigilance when governments at any level attempt to impose limits on political speech. The city of Laramie’s sign regulations fail to meet this basic standard.

When the Laramie City Council adopted the Unified Development Code (UDC) in 2010, the package included comprehensive sign regulations intended to “improve the aesthetic appearance of Laramie” among other things. However, the Laramie UDC contains a list of signs exempt from those regulations — this is a problem and a consequence of exempting some, but not all political signs from permit regulations. The UDC also requires residents to obtain a sign permit to engage in some political speech based on what the sign says. This is the precise type of speech that both the United States and the Wyoming Constitution protect most vigorously.

The First Amendment does not allow a local city council to decide between aesthetic concerns and whether to allow residents to communicate political preferences. The court had to explicitly remind the city of Cheyenne of this basic legal rule in the 1996 case of Williams v. city of Cheyenne, (Case No. 139-215). In that case, the city of Cheyenne tried to fine Ronald Williams $100 because he did not take down his sign supporting Barbara Cubin in time. The court stated then that political speech is non-commercial speech that must receive the fullest and most urgent protection under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Mr. Williams took the city of Cheyenne to court again this year to kill new political sign regulations that Cheyenne took on when it adopted the UDC. The Laramie UDC also imposes a deadline after each election for residents to remove political signs.

In fact, the city of Laramie learned how strongly both constitutions protect noncommercial speech (which includes political signs) in 1994 when the Wyoming Supreme Court stated in Miller v. City of Laramie, “Noncommercial speech …is entitled to the full protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as well as Art. 1, § 20 of the Wyoming Constitution.” Although the Miller case pertained to a free newspaper delivered to each doorstep in Laramie, noncommercial speech protections apply across various media.

Put simply, the U.S. Supreme Court has already determined that cities cannot dictate when a person erects a political sign based on aesthetics. Political signs, like newspapers, are at the very core of what the First Amendment exists to protect. Therefore, the city government must take two steps to fix the existing regulations that apply to political signs so that the UDC does not continue to violate the constitution. First, the city government should publicly announce immediately that residents may display signs supporting any candidate the resident wants to support without fear of reprisal. Second, the City Council should immediately begin the process of removing the unconstitutional sign regulations from the UDC. History has shown that courts do not tolerate local ordinances that chill political speech by threatening censorship —even if those ordinances are not enforced. There is no room for local governments to censor political speech in the United States, the city of Laramie included.

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