In November, a Washington federal trial judge struck down a District of Columbia law regulating how long signs could stay on lampposts, finding it violated the First Amendment.
Six months later, the plaintiff is accusing the city of failing to comply with the order. The city, on the other hand, contends the earlier court decisions are invalid because of newly discovered evidence the plaintiff no longer existed as it was litigating the case.
The Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation was one of two groups that sued the city over its poster regulations. In November, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth found the law, which drew distinctions between event and non-event signs, was unconstitutionally vague. The law, Lamberth said, gave the authorities too much discretion to decide if a sign were event-related. The city asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn the decision.
On May 28, the foundation asked Lamberth to order the city to explain why it shouldn't be held in contempt for not complying with the November decision. According to the foundation, the city refused to repeal the regulations after Lamberth issued his order. The group argued that by keeping the regulations on the books, including provisions about fines for violating the rules, the city continued to chill speech in violation of Lamberth's order.
"I think it's appalling that the District of Columbia has … devoted so many taxpayer resources to their illegal efforts to maintain unconstitutional regulations that are in violation of people's free speech rights," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a Washington-based public interest group representing the plaintiffs.
D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, in a letter sent to the foundation's lawyers, said in May that city agencies were told to not enforce the regulations. But, Nathan said, Lamberth's order didn't require the city to outright repeal the regulations. In a statement today, Nathan said the city “complied faithfully with the Court's orders and our full response to this meritless motion will be filed with the Court by the June 14 due date.”
As the foundation and the city tussled over Lamberth's November order, the city was pursuing an effort in the D.C. Circuit in May to vacate the judgment and other rulings entered in the foundation's favor. The city argued it had evidence that the foundation stopped operating in June 2011 and, as a result, lacked standing to be a part of the case.
The foundation replied that the city's arguments were belied by the fact that the foundation notified the city in May that it had put up new posters, a clear indication the group still existed. The city filed a reply brief claiming the group's recent involvement in the poster campaign was prompted by the city's investigation into its existence.
Verheyden-Hilliard called the city's motion to vacate "frivolous" and "baseless."
"For six years, the city has done everything that it can do to keep from conforming its regulations to constitutional requirements," she said.