A section of a Howard County bill banning advertising “any message” on state highways is unconstitutional, according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
“The message ban provision ... is not narrowly tailored; it broadly reaches speech protected by the First Amendment, thus it is unconstitutional,” according to a letter dated Thursday by Doug Gansler’s office in response to questions by Sen. Allan Kittleman about the bill to be presented in the upcoming General Assembly session.
Kittleman, who is member of the Howard delegation, said he was pleased by Gansler’s response.
“This bill was clearly an effort to protect incumbents and make it harder for challengers to run effective [political] campaigns,” he said.
Challengers frequently rely on political sign waving and knocking on doors to get their name out to voters who may not know them, he said. However, the bill’s sponsors said its intent was not to ban sign waving.
“The point of the bill is to make roads consistently safe, whether they’re county or state roads,” said Del. Shane Pendergrass.
“We’re aware there might be some constitutional issues, and if there are, we’ll amend it and deal with it in the right way,” said Del. Guy Guzzone.
“The advertising component is really about being distracting to traffic.”
Republicans such as Del. Warren Miller were still unsure.
“I believe the real crux of the bill is to ban political sign waving,” he said.
“And that would concern me because it violates freedom of speech.”
Del. Gail Bates said the proposal could stop activities such as church youth groups or school groups advertising car washes or other fundraisers.
The bill also bans the solicitation of money or donations from those in vehicles on state roads. Currently, panhandling is prohibited on county roads.
Pendergrass said she received a couple complaints from residents about those asking for money on roadsides.
“When I get a complaint from one or two, I assume there could be 100 or more,” she said.
In October 2007, Anne Arundel banned any kind of panhandling on county roads.