Two Milpitas residents backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are suing the City of Milpitas for its sign ordinance that Alan Schlosser, legal director for the Northern California branch of the ACLU, says is overly restrictive and diminishing free speech in the city.
According to a statement written by Schlosser, the issue with the city’s sign ordinance was ignited when Milpitan Rob Means put a 26 x 26 inch sign reading “We are the 99%” in his front yard earlier this year. Soon after, means reportedly received an abatement notice from the city saying he needed to remove the sign, decrease its size to fit within the city’s 1 x 1 foot requirement or fork over $700 to apply for an exception to the ordinance.
Another resident, Don Bloomer, who lives down the street from Means, encountered the same issue with a sign in his yard, but removed it after receiving the abatement notice, Schlosser states.
The ACLU asked the City of Milpitas to restrict enforcement of the ordinance until it was modified in such a way that it wouldn't limit free speech, and decided to sue after “no meaningful action from the city” was taken, Schlosser states.
City Attorney Says Lawsuit is Aggressive
Michael Ogaz, attorney for the City of Milpitas, said the lawsuit is surprising because city staff told ACLU officials they wouldn’t enforce the ordinance on Means or Bloomer during a previous phone conference.
As for amending the ordinance, Ogaz said city staff was preparing to go through the timely process, which requires creating a proposed change, having it reviewed by the planning commission and then having the planning commission deliver a recommendation to the city council for approval.
“We thought the agreement not to enforce the ordinance would give everyone enough breathing room so we could go through that process, but it seems for whatever reason they decided to file this lawsuit now,” Ogaz said. “[The ACLU’s lawsuit is] aggressive, especially in light of the fact that I think we’ve been very cooperative with the ACLU — listening to their concerns, etcetera. I would think there would be more important civil rights issues for them to address than an ordinance that we said we would not enforce at this time.”
Temporary vs. Permanent Signs
The city’s sign ordinance states that political signs, referred to as “temporary” signs, are allowed if they’re removed within 15 days after an election. Political, or “permanent,” signs that don’t involve an election must be no larger than 1 x 1 feet.
Schlosser writes that the city’s ordinance is an overly broad restriction on Milpitans. The basis of his argument is that Means and Bloomer have the right to post permanent signs in their own yards regardless of size or time constraints. He contends it’s a matter of freedom of speech and expression that’s protected by the First Amendment.
However, Mayor Jose Esteves said he supports the sign ordinance and the restriction on temporary signs, reasoning that signs remaining between elections, like the June 5 Presidential Primary and the Nov. 6 elections, are “iffy” because of the amount of exposure they allow.
Esteves also said he doesn’t see a difference between permanent or temporary signs, and that the ordinance is about establishing a boundary that everyone has to follow.
“It has nothing to do with rights. I comply with it myself,” Esteves said. “I’m happy with what we have. So far I don’t see a problem brought to me about ordinance with signs. We are being sued right and left, but it doesn’t mean we’re guilty of anything.”
The ordinance is considered a necessary evil of sorts, because Esteves said it wouldn't be good for the city to have a sign that’s not controlled.
“I don’t want a city that’s full of signs in the trees and the corner and everywhere," he said. "It’s not good representation of the city if we have signs everywhere unrestricted.”
Ogaz said he thinks there’s a possibility that the city may revise the ordinance, although he wouldn’t say in what respect it would change.
“It’s an older ordinance and there are older areas that may be amended,” he said.