by Robert Sargent
CLERMONT – The American Civil Liberties Union is supporting a Clermont resident in his spat with the city over a political campaign sign.
Bryan Orr, 24, put a sign in front of his home on West Minnehaha Drive this month touting Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul. But a Clermont official told Orr that he had to either pay a $50 refundable deposit or take down the sign — and violation would lead to a $250 citation.
Orr challenged the city’s code, calling it an infringement of his political free speech. So he contacted the media and the ACLU to gain awareness for his cause and some extra publicity for Paul.
The ACLU Foundation of Florida sent a letter to Clermont on Thursday arguing that the city’s implementation of the code was unconstitutional. The civil-rights watchdog also threatened Clermont with a federal lawsuit if it tried to pursue enforcement against Orr.
Clermont’s attorney contacted the ACLU on Thursday and said the city would not enforce the rule on Orr, according to Glenn M. Katon, Central Region Office director for the ACLU Foundation of Florida. City Manager Wayne Saunders said he would meet with the attorney today.
“Our city attorney is looking at the way the ordinance is written,” Saunders said. “We are going to make sure that we are confident in the way the ordinance is written before it is enforced.”
Many cities have rules regulating political campaign signs. Nearby Groveland also charges a refundable deposit for signs. Other cities, including Mount Dora, have never required deposits, although they do mandate a certain size for signs and that properties have only one sign per political candidate.
Orr said he wants Clermont to recognize how its law is affecting him.
“What I am trying to accomplish is to make them think about it — make them consider whether this is a freedom-of-speech issue,” he explained.
Orr said he put the sign out earlier this month reading “Ron Paul President ’08.” A few days later, a Clermont code-enforcement officer picked up the sign and brought it to his front door with a message about the city’s code.
Orr then placed two signs in his yard. The city responded with a letter asking him to take down the signs. Orr said he talked with city officials and e-mailed them about the issue.
He complied with Clermont’s request, although he said he put a sign in his yard again Thursday after the ACLU sent its letter.
Clermont officials have used the $50 deposit as a way to make political candidates clean up signs after an election. The code targets candidates and their supporters to pay the fees — not residents who post the candidates’ signs:
“The candidate whose sign is erected or placed on any premises shall deposit with the city clerk, or cause to be deposited by a designee thereof, a fee as adopted by resolution of the city council and on file in the city clerk’s office, which sum shall be used to fund the cost of removal and disposition of such signs by city employees if the signs are not removed within the time limit set out in this section. A single deposit shall be required for each candidate or political cause being advertised.”
The ACLU argues that the rule does not apply to Orr, an air-conditioning contractor with a wife and four children. Officials also said prohibiting residents from posting political signs unless candidates named on those signs pay the required deposit violates free speech protected under the First Amendment.
Katon criticized governments that have different restrictions for political signs from any other type of sign.
“That really raises the hackles for us when it becomes easier to put up a ‘For Sale’ sign than something related to political speech,” he said.