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U.S. court upholds permits for signs on private property

Plaintiffs in Bradford, Pa., said they were targeted because their messages were critical of city leaders.

PITTSBURGH - A federal appeals court upheld Bradford city regulations requiring a permit for certain signs on private property, rejecting an argument that the ordinance violates free-speech rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ban on behalf of three residents, two of whom claimed they were cited because their signs criticized local government.

"The ACLU still believes there are constitutional flaws with Bradford's law, but unfortunately, the appeals court disagreed," Witold "Vic" Walczak, the group's legal director in Pennsylvania, said yesterday.

Walczak said he did not know whether the ACLU would appeal the ruling, issued Thursday by a three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The appeals panel found the regulations were legal because they are "content-neutral," meaning they do not ban or unduly restrict certain types of messages. The ruling upholds an August 2005 decision by a U.S. District Court judge who also rejected arguments that Bradford's rules were overly broad and vague.

"What's unfortunate about this is, they had to file a lawsuit in order to change this ordinance. I think the city was always willing to work with anyone to change the language of this ordinance," said City Attorney Richard Lanzillo.

"But the plaintiffs and the ACLU were trying to invalidate the entire ordinance, and that was a line the city couldn't cross," Lanzillo said. "This ordinance is designed to promote public safety, to promote historic preservation, and to preserve those aesthetics."

The ACLU sued in March 2004, shortly after the city enacted the regulations, one of which requires property owners to get a permit, pay a $20 fee and post a $10,000 bond to hang or display signs on their property. Other rules banned all signs in the historic district unless they advertised a business or public service.

The three plaintiffs claimed the rules were unconstitutional and selectively enforced. Two of them, Thomas Riel and Diane Thompson, alleged they were targeted because of signs they posted criticizing the police and Mayor Michelle Corignani. Riel and Thompson were cited and forced to remove those signs and others.

Riel ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign in 2003 for mayor of Bradford, a city of about 9,000 residents along the New York border known as the home of Zippo lighters.

Two months after the ACLU filed suit, the city amended the ordinance to allow temporary signs - those posted for less than 60 days - and noncommercial signs up to 12 square feet on private property without a permit. The city still requires permits for larger noncommercial signs and all permanent commercial signs in the historic district.

The city also now requires permit approvals to be issued within 30 days. Previously, the approval process was open-ended.

"Mr. Riel and his cohorts did Bradford residents a huge public service by forcing the city to allow homeowners to exercise free-speech rights," Walczak said. "And the city has significantly improved the ordinance."

But Lanzillo notes the original regulations were not struck down by the courts before the city voluntarily changed them.

"What the court was doing was reviewing the ordinance in its amended form," Lanzillo said. "Any inference that the original ordinance was unconstitutional is inaccurate."