xml:space="preserve">
A Baltimore City Council committee is considering eliminating an unconstitutional regulation that dictates when people can start displaying campaign materials outside their homes and on their lawns. In this file photo campaign workers and many signs greeted voters at The League for People with Disabilities early polling site on Cold Spring Lane. Amy Davis/ Baltimore Sun
A Baltimore City Council committee is considering eliminating an unconstitutional regulation that dictates when people can start displaying campaign materials outside their homes and on their lawns. In this file photo campaign workers and many signs greeted voters at The League for People with Disabilities early polling site on Cold Spring Lane. Amy Davis/ Baltimore Sun (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Some might say November is too early to start putting up Christmas decorations. Still, there’s no law keeping people from stringing up their lights before Thanksgiving.

Some might also say there is such a thing as “too early” for putting up campaign signs in your yard and, at least for now, Baltimore City code agrees with them.

Advertisement

A City Council committee took a step Tuesday toward eliminating an unconstitutional regulation that dictates when people in Baltimore can start displaying campaign materials outside their homes and on their lawns.

The rule hasn’t been enforced in more than a decade — given that it infringes on people’s freedom of speech — but its presence on the books still causes confusion for some residents.

“Having the code properly represent what is enforceable and what is not enforceable is important,” said Jason Hessler, a deputy housing commissioner. “It’s good we’re cleaning it up now.”

The code currently states that people can’t erect political campaign signs on their property before the last day a candidate has to withdraw. For the upcoming 2020 elections in Baltimore, that deadline would be Feb. 3. Posting political signs any earlier, city regulations dictate, could result in a citation and $100 fee.

After a brief hearing, the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee voted Tuesday in favor of repealing the prohibition. It will go before the rest of the council at its next meeting.

In response to the bill, the city’s Law Department said the rule was “not legally enforceable because it is an unconstitutional regulation of speech.” The city hasn’t issued any citations or notices about this code violation since at least 2007.

That was the year a federal judge struck down Baltimore County’s regulations on political campaign signs in yards, saying the rule violated residents’ right to freedom of speech. Before the court’s decision, the county prohibited residents from exhibiting campaign signs on private property earlier than 45 days before a primary election.

Hessler said he adjusted the city’s violation system after the court ruling, meaning housing officials could no longer issue a citation or collect fees because of a too-early campaign sign. But without legislative intervention, the rule remained on the books.

For years, there weren’t any issues. Recently, though, the city Department of Housing and Community Development got five complaints about campaign signs that were posted too early. After investigating, officials didn’t take any enforcement measures, but the incident brought new attention to the outdated code language.

For the people at the center of those recent complaints, this effort to clarify city law and bring it into line with the U.S. Constitution is important.

It troubled Seema Shah-Nelson when a city official knocked on her door in July in Mount Washington and said she had to remove the campaign sign she was displaying in support of Democrat Christopher Ervin, who is seeking election in Baltimore’s 5th council district.

Shah-Nelson researched Baltimore code and reached out to her various agencies, who assured her that the city will not cite residents over campaign signs and that she would not have to pay any fee.

“It was definitely a stressful experience for me,” she said.

She felt like city representatives didn’t have a good grasp of what was going on or who needed to take responsibility.

Advertisement

The housing department reached out to Shah-Nelson to clear up the confusion after she posted about her experience on a community Facebook page.

Shortly after, Democratic Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer introduced the bill. He’s the current representative for the 5th district.

“It was brought to my attention that the rules that govern this ordinance have been ruled unconstitutional,” Schleifer said during the hearing. “What we’re looking to do today is repeal this code so there’s no confusion and we can bring our ordinances up to date.”

Repealing that section of city code is the right thing to do, said Shah-Nelson, who has since put the Ervin sign back up outside her home.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement