Commercial signs abound along the residential streets of Scarsdale, but anyone trying to express positions on political signs risks criminal proceedings.
Recently, signs supporting a school bond issue began disappearing from front lawns and residents suspected they had been stolen. In fact, according to a lawsuit, Scarsdale police had removed them.
The removals were in stark contrast, according to Robert J. Berg, to the village’s “laissez-faire policy” of allowing hundreds, if not thousands, of business signs to litter the right-of-way.Berg sued the village and the police department in federal court, claiming they had violated citizens’ constitutional rights to free speech.
U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Roman ruled on Feb. 6, just two days before the referendum, that the village may not stop people from posting political signs, as long as they pose no safety or traffic hazards.
Village Attorney Wayne D. Esannason and Police Chief Andrew A. Matturro did not respond to messages asking for comment. The village hall was closed in observance of Lincoln’s birthday.
The case centers on a village law that restricts signs in the public right-of-way, within 13 feet of curbs. The village engineer is authorized to give written permission for signs and the village may remove signs that have not been approved.
Berg claims that the law is enforced selectively. He said he spotted hundreds of signs for real estate agents selling and renting property, plumbing and heating contractors, painters, contractors, burglar alarm companies and high school athletic boosters supporting the Scarsdale Raiders. All were within 3 feet of curbs.
But Vote Yes! signs in support of the Feb. 8 school board bond issue were being removed.
Berg, a lawyer, is an ardent supporter of the bond issue. He describes himself as an active participant in Scarsdale civic affairs. He ran for mayor last year and he intends to run for a village trustee seat in March.
The $64.8 million bond issue for renovating and expanding schools “pitted neighbor against neighbor,” he said, and had become “one of the most controversial and divisive issues to affect Scarsdale in recent years.”
Bond supporters erected about 500 “Vote Yes!” signs. Most were placed close to street curbs for maximum impact.
Fewer “Vote No” signs also were posted, Berg speculated, because the opponents had likely enlisted the assistance of the police department to remove “Vote Yes!” signs.
He said police officers explained that they do not routinely remove signs in the public right-of-way but that they must do so if someone lodges a complaint.
He sued the village for $1 in damages and asked the court for an injunction declaring the village law unconstitutional and for a restraining order forbidding village officials from enforcing the law.
Judge Roman granted a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order.
With the referendum just days away, Roman observed, time was of the essence and Berg had showed irreparable harm. Berg’s entire lawn, for instance, fell within the village’s right-of-way.
Signs play an important part in political campaigns, Roman said in citing legal precedents. “The village may not indefinitely foreclose such a historically important means of expression for its residents.”
Voters also ruled on the issue. They approved the bond issue by a 2-to-1 vote.