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Professor sues New York town over blatant political speech ban

A Syracuse University professor at is taking a small town in central New York to court over a law that severely restricts the display of political signs on private property.

The professor is David Rubin, former longtime dean of the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse. The town is Manlius, a suburb — insofar as it goes — of the city of Syracuse.

Rubin and the Center for Competitive Politics, which filed the suit on his behalf, contend that the part the town code that limits temporary campaign signs violates the First Amendment right to free speech, reports local ABC affiliate WSYR.

The trouble started back in 2006, when town officials asked Rubin to remove some signs from his lawn.

Rubin, who by the way teaches First Amendment law, cited Ladue v. Gilleo, a 1994 case which held that a ritzy suburb of St. Louis did not have the “compelling” interest required for a very broad ban on private property signage.

The law against free speech in Manlius allows private property owners to display campaign signs up to 30 days before an election (and for seven days after an election). The law also requires property owners to obtain a permit for their yard signs.

“Oh, I’ve got to get a form. I’ve got to fill it out. I’ve got to take it down to the town hall. I’ve got to wait; they are going to go through it,” Rubin told WSYR. “Why should I have to do all this?”

The regulation exists “in order to preserve aesthetics and ensure traffic safety,” according to the town code.

Color Rubin unimpressed.

“This sort of speech is the most protected kind of political speech,” the professor reminded the ABC affiliate.

“Why do I have to wait until 30 days before the election when we have candidates who aren’t waiting 30 months before the election and they start to run?” Rubin asked. “You should be able to comment on an election from the point at which an election has started, people are declared candidates, people are raising money, people are circulating petitions, people are doing all the things that they do to run for office.”

Not everyone in the pleasant, wealthy hamlet is on board with Rubin’s free-speech crusade.

“Look, it’s green. It is beautiful. The flowers are out. Why put a sign at somebody’s house?” Manlius resident Thomas Corcoran told WSYR. “I mean, it is a beautiful community and why litter it with all these signs?”

Manlius town supervisor Ed Theobald, a Republican, said he hopes to reach an agreement quickly with Rubin and the Center for Competitive Politics. Oddly, though, the town didn’t bother to respond when it first saw a draft of the complaint back in March.

Don Martin, a lawyer for the town of Manlius, stalled for time.

“We need to review the law to see where our ordinance fits factually with the existing case law to determine how we are going to respond,” the attorney said.

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