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ACLU sues Town of Portsmouth over violation notice on signs

Resident Michael DiPaola issued notice of violation over signs that allege ‘corrupt’ code enforcement by town

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/22/21

PORTSMOUTH — No doubt you’ve seen the signs while driving up and down Bristol Ferry Road, although perhaps the wording was difficult to make out from a moving vehicle.

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ACLU sues Town of Portsmouth over violation notice on signs

Resident Michael DiPaola issued notice of violation over signs that allege ‘corrupt’ code enforcement by town

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — No doubt you’ve seen the signs while driving up and down Bristol Ferry Road, although perhaps the wording was difficult to make out from a moving vehicle.

• “Judge, Juri (sic), Executioner”

• “Portsmouth Lets Officials selectively enforce codes!!”

• “Officials violate code of ethics — Coverup — Conflict — Works 4 Contractor”

• “Dumb + Dumber”

And so on …

The signs were erected in front of a home at 184 Bristol Ferry Road by local resident Michael DiPaola, who has made “spurious” accusations against several town officials, according to Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr., whose office phone was listed on one of the signs.

Over the course of a few days last week, Mr. DiPaola posted additional signs, and on Jan. 14 he was issued a notice of violation of the town’s zoning ordinance. 

The notice alleges that Mr. DiPaola failed to obtain a permit required to display the signs, that political signs were not a category of sign allowed to be displayed in residential areas, and that the display also violated a provision banning signs that “interfere with, mislead or confuse traffic.” He was given seven days to remove the signs or face $500-a-day fine for each sign left standing.

On Friday, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island announced it has filed a federal lawsuit against the town, challenging the town ordinance that bans the posting of political signs on residential property. Attorney Richard A. Sinapi filed the suit on behalf of Mr. DPaola, whose signs express “his opinions criticizing perceived selective and corrupt code enforcement by the town,” according to a press release sent out by the ACLU.

According to the ACLU, Mr. DiPaola has had a running feud with town building officials, and the suit claims he posted the first sign after five years of frustration and perceived harassment from officials, “both in excessively enforcing codes against him and refusing to enforce building codes against others.” 

The lawsuit argues that the zoning ordinance violates Mr. DiPaola’s free speech rights under the First Amendment by, among other things, “permitting only signs with specified content to be erected; exempting certain permitted signs from the requirement of obtaining a permit; and prohibiting all other speech, including political speech.” 

The suit claims the ordinance has the unconstitutional effect of regulating political speech more harshly than other types of speech. The suit also challenges the ordinance’s failure to “provide any guidelines or criteria which must be followed and applied by a Building Inspector in making a determination as to whether or not to grant a sign permit.”

The complaint notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has found that “residential signs are a form of unique expression entitled to the highest degree of protection” under the First Amendment. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the ordinance, and an award of compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.

'Selective enforcement'

“I have been the victim of selective enforcement and harassment by many Town of Portsmouth officials,” Mr. DiPaola is quoted as saying in the press release. “All I’ve wanted from day one is to be treated the same as everyone else, nothing more. The rules apply to everyone equally, or none at all. I was left no other option.”

Added Mr. Sinapi, “Prohibiting the posting of political signs on residential property or requiring a permit before doing so is the exact opposite of free speech and is directly contrary to the free and open exchange of ideas and information essential for a democracy to exist. Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and the ordinance’s more favorable treatment of non-political speech simply cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny. The danger to First Amendment values is especially great when a public official is given unbridled discretion to decide who may speak and who may not, particularly where political speech — expression essential to the functioning of a democracy – is involved."

Administrator: False aspersions

Mr. Rainer was asked about the signs in a recent interview, before the violation notice was sent to Mr. DiPaola. 

“He’s a disgruntled gentleman who has objections to some of the rulings made by the building officials, and he’s chosen to exercise his free speech by putting up signs,” he said at the time.

Mr. DiPaola, the administrator said, is falsely “trying to connect dots that something unethical is being done here.”

On Friday, Mr. Rainer said he could not comment further as the matter is now in litigation.

"We've turned the matter over to our Rhode Island Interlocal Trust," he said, referring to the town's insurer. Attorney Marc DeSisto of the Trust is handling the case for the town.

"He'll be working with our town solicitor," Mr. Rainer said.

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