Lafayette officials backing off ban on political signs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Roadside political signs can been seen along a stretch of North College Road Friday in Lafayette.

City-parish government is backing off enforcement of a ban on political signs earlier than three months before an election over questions about whether the restriction is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.

The City-Parish Department of Planning, Zoning and Development sent letters last month to several candidates with signs out far ahead of this year’s fall elections, advising them of the local sign law and asking them to comply.

Retired prosecutor Keith Stutes, who is running against incumbent 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson, pushed back, arguing a 90-day time limit on election signs is a strike at free speech and citing U.S. Supreme Court opinions to support his case.

City-parish government does not concede that point but will suspend enforcement of the 90-day sign limit pending legal research on the issue, City-Parish Chief Development Officer Kevin Blanchard said.

He said the current sign law will be reworked if deemed unenforceable.

“If it’s something that needs to be tweaked, we will tweak it,” Blanchard said.

Stutes issued a written statement thanking the city for its decision.

“I appreciate their acknowledgement of the constitutional and clarity concerns we raised with that specific portion of the ordinance, and their decision to review the matter further,” Stutes wrote. “The people of Lafayette care deeply about our community and its aesthetics. At the same time, we feel strongly about our constitutional right to freely express our support for the men and women who seek public office here.”

The 90-day limit applies only to signs on private property.

All political advertising is banned on public property, such as medians or the public right-of-way along roads, and Blanchard said the public-property ban will still be enforced, as well as regulations limiting the size of political signs to 8 square feet in residential areas and 32 square feet in commercial and industrial areas.

“We are going to enforce any other violation that we find,” he said.

Blanchard also said he views the 90-day time limit as reasonable and believes candidates should be willing to voluntarily comply with a regulation that aims to cut down on visual clutter, even if there are constitutional questions.

“It would be nice for everybody to step back and remember what the purpose of the ordinance was,” he said. “It’s fun to get into the legal minutiae, but there is such a thing as being a good citizen.”

The city acted last month based on what City-Parish Director of Planning, Zoning and Development Eleanor Bouy said seemed to be the earliest political advertising she had seen in years.

Most of the signs around the city are for two of the most active races this year, the contests between Harson and Stutes and between incumbent Lafayette City Marshal Earl “Nickey” Picard and challenger Brian Pope.

Picard voluntarily removed his signs last month after learning of the regulations.