Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock.com
The First Amendment doesn’t specifically mention streetlight poles, but they are involved in a free speech class action complaint filed in federal court in Chicago.
RCP Publications filed the complaint in December against the city, arguing the city violates the First Amendment with its policy on which messages may be posted on public property. The Chicago-based nonprofit corporation publishes Revolution Newspaper as well as books focusing on political, economic and social issues. It regularly distributes paper documents directing people to their website.
The lawsuit arose from advertising for the March online premiere of “Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion,” which RCP streamed free at revcom.us. An unaffiliated group, BA Everywhere, hosted an in-person premiere, using posters that mentioned both the Web stream and live event to promote the film.
One such poster, attached to a streetlight pole at 5701 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago, prompted the city of Chicago to issue RCP a citation for violating a city statute that stipulates “No person shall distribute or cause others to distribute .. commercial advertising material by means of posting, sticking, stamping, tacking, painting or otherwise fixing any sign .. calculated to attract the attention of the public, to or upon any .. lamppost.”
Though the premiere was in March, the city issued its ordinance violation notice July 14. RCP appeared at a Nov. 16 hearing to contest the ticket, but an administrative law judge found RCP liable and levied a $350 fine, plus $40 in court costs.
In its lawsuit, RCP argued the city statute is unconstitutional because it regulates speech by topic, specifically that it “restricts signs communicating a message deemed ‘commercial’ but does not restrict signs communicating any other type of message (including political, artistic, social, directional or charitable). There is no compelling government interest served by restricting signs communicating ‘commercial’ messages while allowing signs communicating all other messages.”
The film advertised on the poster in question “featured a discussion between two prominent intellectuals, Cornel West and Bob Avakian,” according to the complaint. And although the online streaming was available at no charge through a nonprofit agency, the city’s decision to issue the violation brands RCP’s involvement as commercial.
The class would include potentially dozens of people who, during the class period — which the complaint did not yet define — have been ticketed or fined under the applicable city code. The complaint’s central question is whether the city is allowed to restrict only commercial messages: “This question predominates over any questions affecting only individual Class members.”
In addition to class certification and a jury trial, RCP is seeking monetary damages and compensation for legal fees. It wants the court to declare the city statute unconstitutional and to enter preliminary and permanent injunctions barring its enforcement.
RCP’s attorneys are Mark G. Weinberg and Adele D. Nicholas, of Chicago.