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Antiwar group sues D.C. over handbill fines

The city seeks to halt poster proliferation, but an organization alleges free-speech violation.

August 21, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

washington -- As the country's political epicenter, Washington is probably the handbill capital of the United States. Virtually every cause and opinion in town comes in sticker form, many of them posted publicly.

The District of Columbia is attempting to rein in the proliferation of posters by levying fines against organizations that stick statements on the city's lampposts, vacant buildings and trees. One group responded Monday in typical Washington fashion -- with a lawsuit, a news conference and a complaint alleging abridgment of free speech.

On Thursday, the city's Department of Public Works imposed almost $10,000 in fines on the ANSWER Coalition, an antiwar organization, for violating several city ordinances with its posters announcing a Sept. 15 march against the Iraq war. ANSWER, for its part, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the statutes violate its free-speech rights and target the content of its handbills.

"This is a regulatory scheme that is illegal and unconstitutional that is being used to launch an unprecedented attack on an antiwar organization," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice, ANSWER's legal counsel.

Department of Public Works spokeswoman Linda Grant said that city workers didn't issue tickets because of content, but because of placement. Many of ANSWER's bright-yellow posters were affixed to off-limit structures, used inappropriate adhesives and appeared in improper quantities, she said.

"That is really the problem, when we have the regulations that do say, 'You may only put them on lampposts and only three [on each] side of a block,' and that isn't followed," she said. "All we're really asking is that people who do have a cause or issue respect the residents of the district by following the rules."

Charles Kaufman, an officer at the Alliance for Global Justice, an international peace organization and ANSWER's landlord, says he isn't sure how his group has violated that respect. The alliance was fined $300 Monday because of ANSWER's handbills.

"We rent them office space, but we didn't have anything to do with the posters," he said. "It's funny, 'cause we have people calling in to tell us these posters are near ads for sex shows and multiple ads for moving companies on the same post."

The Department of Public Works has issued fines to an assortment of entities, including commercial interests and political organizations, said Grant. However, she said that because such records are not computerized, she was unable to identify those fined or to confirm whether the fines imposed on ANSWER were the largest.

The city issued a warning to ANSWER on Aug. 13, giving the organization 72 hours to remove 65 handbills or face a $150 fine for each. The warning came after it took an employee almost 30 minutes to scrape off just one handbill. The National Park Service also asked ANSWER to remove improperly posted handbills near the White House and on the National Mall but set no deadline, and told the group it would be charged cleanup costs.

ANSWER refused both requests, saying the majority of its handbills were not in violation.

The organization says that it is the only group ever hit with such a large fine for handbills in a city overflowing with public political speech on paper. Its lawsuit, announced Monday during a news conference, alleges that other forms of speech are given preferential treatment based on content, including speech from political candidates' campaigns.

Election season finds candidates' stickers and posters clinging by staple, adhesive or paste to every imaginable surface. Still, campaign organizations are rarely, if ever, ticketed, said Sarah Sloan, ANSWER's national staff coordinator..

Sloan said all of her organization's handbills, depicting a bullhorn aimed at the White House, were posted using water-soluble wheat paste on structures that were considered lampposts. The organization refused to register the posters with the city, as is required by statute, she acknowledged, saying that that requirement violates the right to anonymous speech.

"ANSWER will not pay one penny to the government for our 1st Amendment rights," Sloan said.

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