The City of Salida avoided a federal court battle with ACLU attorneys yesterday, when it withdrew its threat to enforce its sign code against Debra Juchem, a local resident and business owner who erected an antiwar sign on the side of her downtown building.
The sign says “Kill one person and it’s MURDER. Kill thousands and it’s FOREIGN POLICY. STOP THE IRAQ WAR NOW!”
Several week ago, the City of Salida informed Ms. Juchem that the sign violates the City’s municipal sign code. The City threatened to begin an enforcement if the sign were not removed by September 18. Ms. Juchem asked for help from the ACLU of Colorado, and ACLU attorneys were ready to file yesterday in federal court to defend Ms. Juchem’s First Amendment rights.
“Our client’s sign is classic political expression that is squarely protected by the First Amendment and the Colorado Constitution,” said Tom Macdonald, of Otten Johnson Robinson, Neff & Ragonetti, who is representing Ms. Juchem as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “Cities may have some power to regulate the size and placement of signs, but Salida’s sign code, especially as it is interpreted and applied by City officials, violates the standards of numerous court decisions that protect the right of individuals to express their views without unwarranted government interference.”
According to the ACLU, City officials have created an unwritten exception to the sign code’s provisions for “political signs.” Although Ms. Juchem’s sign is political, the City’s unwritten exception is restricted to signs that are “directly linked” to an upcoming election.
“If Debra added some extra words to her sign that urged the reader to vote for or against a specific candidate, the City would have had no problem with the sign,” explained James Potter, who also represents Ms. Juchem as an ACLU cooperating attorney. “In a letter to Ms. Juchem, however, the City stated that the current sign is not ‘directly linked’ to an election and therefore does not qualify for the unwritten exception to the code’s requirement of a permit.
“The City set up an unconstitutional regulation of signs on the basis of their content,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Decades of Supreme Court case law explain that the First Amendment forbids the government to discriminate against expression on the basis of its content or its viewpoint. The City of Salida had no legitimate right to order Ms. Juchem to take down her sign.
The City of Salida has said that it will review its sign code and consider revisions. In the meantime, it agreed to withdraw its threat to begin an enfocement action against Ms. Juchem and her antiwar sign.
“Salida’s City Attorney deserves credit for doing the right thing,” Silverstein said.
About the ACLU of Colorado
The ACLU is a nationwide, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the principles of the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy and public education. The ACLU Foundation of Colorado works to protect the rights of all Coloradans.