The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Cranston, challenging its blatantly selective enforcement of an ordinance that bars the placement of commercial advertisements on city property. The suit was filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Richard A. Sinapi on behalf of attorney Stephen Hunter, who was threatened with fines if he did not take down signs advertising his business that he had posted at various intersections throughout the city – even though there were dozens of other advertising signs posted at the same locations and many hundreds more citywide, which were, and have been, left untouched and not cited.
The suit claims that last fall, Hunter saw Department of Public Works employees taking down his signs at an intersection, while not removing any of the other advertising signs posted at the same location. During a two month period last year when Hunter was receiving City notices that his signs were in violation of the ordinances and had to be removed, an open records request that he filed further revealed that no other person or entity in violation of the ordinance had been sent a similar notice. Hunter, who is a lawyer, uses the signs to advertise his legal bankruptcy work.
The suit also claims that Hunter was singled out for selective treatment when, shortly after the removal of his signs, he sought to place an A-frame business sign outside his office on Reservoir Avenue. Although there are numerous similar signs scattered throughout the city in front of stores and businesses, Hunter claims he was singled out for this as well by being required to apply for a permit for the simple removable sign.
The lawsuit argues that the City's conduct has violated Hunter's rights to freedom of speech and equal protection of the laws, and seeks an injunction to prevent the City from continuing to interfere with his constitutional rights, and an award of damages and attorneys’ fees.
Plaintiff Hunter said today: "I'm unsure why I have been singled out by the City in this way, but it is extremely unfair that my competitors and other businesses are allowed to freely advertise on public property, whereas I am targeted for selective enforcement and prevented from the same opportunity to exercise my first amendment rights. There is nothing about the content or configuration of my signs that would justify this clearly disparate treatment."
Added ACLU volunteer attorney Sinapi: "While the City may have the authority to restrict the posting of unattended signs on public property, it cannot selectively enforce the ordinance against one person. The discriminatory treatment of Mr. Hunter cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny."
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: "The City of Cranston’s penchant for disregarding basic First Amendment principles is, unfortunately, a recurring one. In the long run, it is ultimately the city’s taxpayers that pay the price for these willful violations of the Constitution."