Changes in works for county sign ordinance

Maui County has settled a free-speech lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and two Maui Peace Action members that will involve changes to the county sign ordinance.

The lawsuit was settled recently in U.S. District Court with the ACLU and Maui plaintiffs Mele Stokesberry and Chuck Carletta, who held signs during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Wailuku in January, even though they knew that they would be in violation of the county ordinance.

They claimed that the county’s public sign ordinance violated the constitutional right to free speech.

The lawsuit was filed in June after repeated refusals by the county to revise the ordinance, said a news release from the ACLU on Monday. The ACLU had sought immediate changes to county laws that prohibit people from displaying signs on sidewalks and along roadways.

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said Monday that the county will make changes to its sign ordinance but added that it was “premature” to discuss the specifics. The changes need to be submitted to the Maui County Council for approval, he said.

He did not have a timeline as to when the issue would be brought up with the council.

The sign ordinance will be changed to comply with free speech guarantees of the First Amendment, the ACLU said. In addition to ordinance changes, the county has agreed to pay the plaintiffs $15,000. Of that total, Carletta and Stokesberry will receive $500 each, $13,575.22 will be applied as attorney fees to the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation and the remaining $424.78 will go to ACLU costs, according to the settlement.

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

Maui County Code Section 12.42.030 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.

On Jan. 11, Stokesberry spoke by telephone to a Maui police officer, who said that the sign ordinance 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 said. The couple felt nervous, worried and/or threatened as they arrived and participated in the march.

They were not ticketed, arrested or cited for their actions,the lawsuit said.

In an email Monday afternoon, Carletta said he is happy that they were successful in settling the issue with the county.

“It’s hard to imagine that our own county government would try to prevent us from carrying signs on Martin Luther King day of all days,” he wrote in an email.

“Any politician who plans to do sign-waving in their campaign, anyone who wants to carry a sign for any cause and even the police when they do their sign-waving to support their own issues can now rest assured that they will not be breaking the county law,” he added.

The ACLU pointed out that even police officers had violated the law while joining demonstrations and sign-waving about the dangers of drunken and distracted driving with children and adults along busy Maui roads.

Stokesberry, a Maui Peace Action founder and co-plaintiff, said that she is proud to stand with the ACLU in protecting First Amendment rights.

“The right to protest is being threatened by increasingly coercive policing throughout the United States, and it’s up to each of us to remain vigilant to preserve and reinforce these fundamental freedoms,” she said in a news release from the ACLU.

“The law was so broad that it effectively prohibited campaign sign-waving, protests, picketing, parades or other demonstrations across large portions of three islands,” said Daniel Gluck, ACLU of Hawaii senior staff attorney. “While we tried to get the county to do the right thing and change these clearly unconstitutional rules without going to court, that was what we had to do. We are pleased with the outcome and grateful to Mele and Chuck for supporting the free-speech rights of all people in Hawaii.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at