Suit filed against county over sign ordinance

The American Civil Liberties Union and Maui Peace Action members Mele Stokesberry and Chuck Carletta filed suit Thursday against Maui County in U.S. District Court, alleging that the county’s public sign ordinances violate the public’s constitutional right to free speech.

There was no immediate reaction Thursday afternoon from Maui County officials. County spokesman Ryan Piros said that he understood that the county had not been served with the lawsuit as of around 4 p.m.

According to an ACLU announcement, the lawsuit seeks immediate changes to county laws that prohibit people from displaying signs on sidewalks and along roadways.

The litigation takes issue with Maui County Code Section 12.42.030, which prohibits sign-waving within 50 feet of any traffic control signal, 20 feet of a pedestrian walkway or 6 feet from the edge of pavement or other highway surface.

The lawsuit said that the ordinance’s regulations “constitute invalid time, place and manner restrictions and violate plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

Specifically, because the regulations are not narrowly tailored, they “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to achieve any purported goal(s) the county might have”; and the regulations are “enforced erratically, such that defendant county is engaged in content-based discrimination and viewpoint-based discrimination,” the lawsuit said.

In January, the county threatened to enforce the ordinance against a group of protesters, according to the ACLU announcement.

“At the same time, however, the county’s own police officers violate these laws by regularly holding demonstrations about the dangers of drunk and distracted driving; indeed, just a few months before threatening to enforce the ordinance against the plaintiffs and other protesters, Maui Police Department officers had engaged in sign-waving with children and adults along busy Maui roads,” the announcement says.

The ACLU said it contacted Maui County to request an amendment of the “unlawful ordinance,” but the county refused.

“It is illegal for county officials to enforce these rules against some protesters but not against others, and it is illegal for the county to allow police officers to break the rules for messages the county supports,” said Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Hawaii.

The lawsuit stems from a Jan. 21 march on sidewalks in downtown Wailuku by Stokesberry, Carletta and other peace activists to mark Martin Luther King Day.

Prior to the march, around Jan. 9, Stokesberry received an email message that march participants would be prohibited from carrying signs, other than photos of King or banners of the groups’ organizations, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 11, Stokesberry spoke by telephone to a Maui police officer, who confirmed that the Maui ordinance prohibiting signs would be enforced against march participants and that the ordinance was necessary for traffic control and safety.

Nevertheless, Stokesberry and her husband, Carletta, decided to carry signs during the march, “even though there was a risk they could face criminal penalties as a result,” the lawsuit says. “Plaintiffs Stokesberry and Carletta felt nervous, worried and/or threatened as they arrived at and participated in the march,” the complaint says. “To date, however, neither plaintiff Stokesberry nor plaintiff Carletta has been ticketed, arrested or otherwise cited for her/his speech or actions leading up to or arising out of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march.”

In the ACLU announcement, Carletta said that the Maui group was protesting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which he called “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,” Carletta said. “We were stunned when we found out that the Maui County Police Department was threatening to issue tickets to anyone in this year’s march carrying a sign with any written messages!”

Stokesberry added: “We have participated in many marches on Maui, and we have always carried signs expressing our ideas as we saw fit. 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 seek to overturn this egregious ordinance.”

Gluck said that the county ordinance is “so broad that it effectively prohibits campaign sign-waving, protests, picketing, parades or other demonstrations across large portions of three islands (Maui, Molokai and Lanai).”

The lawsuit points out that there are commercial signs throughout Maui County, both permanent and temporary, that violate the text of the county sign ordinance.

“Indeed, there are myriad signs along and near the march route – for restaurants, real estate, the State Office Building (at the corner of High Street and Main Street in Wailuku) and so on” that violate the county ordinance, the complaint says. “As such, there appear to be no standards by which Maui County determines how and when to enforce” the ordinance.

The ACLU lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare the county sign ordinance unconstitutional and unconstitutional in the manner it was applied to the plaintiffs. It also seeks to prohibit Maui County from enforcing the sign regulations against the plaintiffs and others, and it asks for nominal damages to be awarded to Stokesberry and Carletta for wrongfully violating their constitutional rights.

The complaint can be found online at

* Brian Perry can be reached at