Maui Couple in ACLU Lawsuit against County Over Sign Ordinance
By Wendy Osher
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi has filed a lawsuit against the County of Maui seeking changes to laws relating to the display of signs on sidewalks and along roadways.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Maui couple, Chuck Carletta and Mele Stokesberry, long-time organizers for Maui Peace Action, a small local Maui non-profit organization.
The lawsuit stems from a Jan. 21, 2013 demonstration in which members of the group Maui Peace Action joined in carrying signs as part of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day march through downtown Wailuku.
According to court documents, the suit claims that the couple received news via email in the days leading up to the event, that anyone participating in the march would be prohibited from carrying signs, other than photos of Dr. King or banners of the participants’ organizations.
When Stokesberry followed up with a phone call to police, she said authorities confirmed that the county’s sign ordinance would be enforced for traffic control and safety, according to the complaint.
Under current laws, individuals are prohibited from sign-waving within: 50 feet of any traffic signal; 20 feet from a pedestrian crosswalk; six feet from the edge of the pavement or other highway surface; on a median strip of a divided highway; on an overpass structure that crosses above or is adjacent to a highway; or on a traffic island.
The march began at the county building in Wailuku, proceeded down Main Street and Market Street. The complaint notes that the sidewalk is narrower than 6 feet along some parts of the march route, and passed within 50 feet of numerous traffic signals and within 20 feet of numerous crosswalks.
Despite feeling “nervous and worried,” both decided to attend the march anyway. Neither were ticketed, arrested, or otherwise cited for their speech or actions leading up to or arising out of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march.
The complaint alleges that the law “severely restricts sign waving in much of downtown Wailuku, Kahului, and Lahaina, where sidewalks (which, themselves, are frequently narrower than six feet) are often immediately adjacent to the roadway and traffic signals and crosswalks are common.”
The complaint further states that the law, “prohibitions–ostensibly enacted to promote traffic safety–apply with equal force to the entirety of the island of Lanai and nearly all of the island of Molokai, where little traffic exists.”
The suit claims the county ordinance is “overbroad” and “unconstitutional” because it “restricts far more speech than is necessary” to accomplish goals.
It also claims that “the countyʻs own police officers violate these laws by regularly holding demonstrations about the dangers of drunk and distracted driving.” The complaint specifically makes reference to a traffic safety rally fronting Baldwin High School in March 2012, and an “Arrive Alive” rally along Kaʻahumanu Avenue in December 2012.
Maui police chief Gary Yabuta responded to our request for comment saying, “Our Department will review this matter with our Corporation Counsel and hopefully dialogue with the ACLU to find a resolve. It will always be the mission of the Maui Police Department to protect the People’s Constitutional Rights and facilitate public safety as well.”
County Communications Director, Rod Antone, meantime said the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not provide immediate comment.
The complaint further states that the law, “not only impacts the First Amendment rights of those who wish to speak, but also the First Amendment rights of those Maui County residents and visitors to hear and see those speakers’ messages.”
According to the complaint, Stokesberry and Carletta plan to participate in future demonstrations where they plan to carry and display signs. This includes plans for International Peace Day on September 21, 2013, and a march on the sidewalk in Wailuku while displaying signs on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20, 2014.
In a statement issued by the ACLU, Carletta said, “More than any other holiday, Martin Luther King day is a meaningful time to exercise our rights to free speech. It is also a day to celebrate Dr. King and the civil rights and peace movements that he sacrificed his life for.”
Co-plaintiff, Stokesberry, who is the founder of Maui Peace Action said, “We carried our signs in the march in January, as did many others, in spite of the threats and we are delighted that the ACLU of Hawaii is willing to stand up for us and to seek to overturn this egregious ordinance.”
The group specifically encourages disarmament through peaceful international cooperation, protests preemptive aggression, promotes non-violent solutions to world conflict, and educates for social justice.
The full text of the complaint is available here (.pdf).