Settlement reached in sign lawsuit

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A settlement has been reached in a legal dispute over the city’s enforcement of its rules governing signs.

Under the terms of a consent judgment filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Cranston would be “permanently restrained and enjoined from selectively enforcing” the relevant ordinances and pay $35,000 in attorney’s fees to plaintiff Stephen M. Hunter. The agreement requires the approval of District Court Chief Judge William Smith.

Mayor Allan Fung issued the following statement Tuesday: “We have agreed to resolve this matter to save the taxpayers from further costly legal expenses. We recognize that as a city we have to do a better job in enforcing our sign ordinance and then documenting our efforts to exhibit that we are doing so consistently on a citywide basis. We also plan to review the sign ordinance itself and amend it to make it more business friendly.”

The settlement would resolve a lawsuit filed two years on Hunter’s behalf by Richard A. Sinapi, a volunteer attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

The suit alleges that city officials violated the constitutional free speech and equal protection rights of Hunter – who works as an attorney – by seeking removal of signs he had placed around the city to advertise his legal bankruptcy services.

According to a statement from the ACLU, Hunter 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 left untouched and not cited.”

The suit specifically refers to a pair of sections in the city’s Code of Ordinances – 5.08.010 and 17.72.010.

The former falls under the part of the code regarding “business licenses and regulation” and specifically “advertisers.” It states: “No person shall advertise any goods, wares or merchandise, or occupation or business by painting or posting any writing, painting, sign or device upon any rocks, roles, or other property in any of the public highways of the city, or upon any fence, rocks, trees, poles, buildings or other property belonging to the city.”

The latter is part of the city’s zoning ordinances. It is extensive and outlines the city’s rules governing signage.

“It is very important that our officials obey the requirements of the Constitution and enforce our laws and ordinances uniformly; otherwise it sets a very dangerous precedent for everyone,” Hunter said through the ACLU’s statement.

“When it comes to the First Amendment, the government can’t play favorites or single out particular individuals for discriminatory treatment,” Sinapi said through the statement. “I am pleased we were able to settle this lawsuit, as it reinforces this fundamental principle.”

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