PAWTUCKET − Campaign yard signs can roam free in Pawtucket and the city will pay two incoming state lawmakers $1,000 for ordering the removal of their signs during this year’s campaign.
That’s the result of a settlement the city agreed to Tuesday to end a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance that bans political signs 30 days before an election.
The city will also have to pay $18,311 in legal bills for the plaintiffs, Jennifer Stewart and Cherie Cruz, two Democrats set to represent Pawtucket in the state House of Representatives in January after winning elections last month.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and attorney Richard Sinapi brought the case on behalf of Stewart and Cruz, arguing that the Pawtucket ordinance violated the First Amendment.
Stewart, attending the House orientation for incoming members on Tuesday, called the settlement a victory for free speech.
“I hope that the City Council will act to officially undo that law, let people know there are competitive elections and that there are viable candidates,” Stewart told The Journal. “These two issues were so important to me as a non-incumbent. I think it is great for democracy that the city of Pawtucket should change its laws.”
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The lawsuit argued that banning lawn signs benefited incumbent politicians and party endorsed candidates over challengers who are not as well known.
Stewart upset incumbent Rep. Jean-Philippe Barros, who was the party endorsed candidate, in the Democratic primary.
Cruz won a four-way Democratic primary to fill an open House seat and was also not endorsed by the party.
The lawsuit was filed in July after Pawtucket City Registrar Kenneth McGill called Stewart, who had put 32 yard signs in front of homes in her district, and warned her that he would alert city zoning officials, who could fine the property owners if the signs were not removed. After the call, she removed her signs.
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The ACLU had previously objected to the Pawtucket ordinance and Cruz, who had been on the ACLU board for a decade, reached out to the group for help.
The city agreed not to enforce the sign ban during this year’s primary and general elections until the court case is resolved.
“I’ve seen other cities and towns with those unconstitutional ordinances around free speech,” Cruz said at the State House Tuesday. “In Pawtucket I felt this was an opportunity to educate people on this. Hopefully, other cities and towns take note and really just build our democracy.”
In the settlement, the city agreed to pay Stewart and Cruz each $500, not enforce the sign ordinance and, if it makes any changes to the ordinance, “do so in compliance with existing state and federal constitutional laws.”
Asked whether the sign ordinance had been a mistake and should have been repeated, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien’s office noted that the local law had been passed in 1997 “at the request of residents.”
“Fast forward to today, the City both acknowledges and appreciates Representative Elect-Cruz and Representative-Elect Stewart for bringing this issue to light through the ACLU lawsuit,” Grebien spokesman Chris Hunter said in an email. “The City of Pawtucket has and continues to respect our residents’ First Amendment right to free speech, particularly political speech which is so critical to our democracy.”
Grebien is asking Stewart and Cruz to “each waive the $500 in compensatory damages… as it is in the best interest of Pawtucket’s taxpayers.”