Philadelphia's utility poles and streetlights can stand easy - they remain safe from campaign posters, staple holes, and tape residue.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has upheld a 2005 city ordinance that prohibits posting any sign, political or otherwise, on city-owned poles. The law's intent is to reduce visual clutter and increase public safety by decreasing "distractions for motorists," or so said the city. (There was no mention of the weedlike sprouting of stick-'em-in-the-ground political signs along the shoulders of well-traveled roads every spring and fall.)
In 2008, two candidates for political office said the rule also had the effect of punishing their low-budget political campaigns. What could be cheaper and more effective than plastering poles with signs that cost cents per sheet? Particularly in a rowhouse city, where front lawns are in short supply.
That was the argument of Kenyatta Johnson, who was running for state representative, and Damon K. Roberts, a candidate for City Council.
Johnson won his race and Roberts lost his, but their case proceeded apace. They lost their first round in U.S. District Court and appealed. Johnson, meanwhile, this year ran for and won the City Council seat previously held by Anna C. Verna. He takes office in January.
The appeals court decision Tuesday said the city violates no First Amendment right by banning pole signs because it bans them for everyone, not just politicians running for office.
"The city's ordinance is content neutral," the court stated, and "leaves open ample alternative channels for communication" with voters.
It cited some examples, but none as cheap, ubiquitous and visible as pole signs, despite the unsightly mess they leave behind. Suggested alternatives included parades, handbills, automobile signs, and private property with the permission of owners.
No word on whether Johnson now hopes to overturn the ban through legislative action.