First Amendment Leaves Dracut Officials Mostly Speechless

By: Brian Genest – April, 2019

Free speech can be hard to swallow, especially in Dracut.

You’d think that a letter from Judicial Watch challenging the constitutionality of the political sign bylaw would be the talk of the town government. You’d be wrong.

Here’s some highlights, so you can see for yourself…

“After hearing from a Dracut resident, we have reviewed the town’s zoning bylaw concerning political signs. It is not content-neutral and is therefore unconstitutional. We ask that you repeal or revise the bylaw immediately. In addition, we ask that you prohibit enforcement of the bylaw until the repeal or revision is complete. This will prevent any further chilling effect on political speech.”

Seems serious, right? Town Manager Jim Duggan didn’t mention it in his update to the Board of Selectmen on February 26th. The only person who did ask about the letter was Selectman Joe DiRocco. When he did, Duggan called Judicial Watch a “special interest group” and tried to dismiss it, saying it had been referred to Town Attorney James Hall, who was not at the meeting.
“We’re not mandated for what is said within that letter,” the town manager proclaimed.

Not mandated to protect freedom of speech? Not mandated to support the First Amendment? Not mandated to follow Supreme Court rulings?
Selectmen Alison Hughes, Jesse Forcier and Tony Archinski said nothing. (Tami Dristiliaris was absent.)

At the Selectmen’s meeting March 12th, Jim Duggan gave his town manager’s update, again. He didn’t mention the issue, again. Joe DiRocco asked him for an update, again.

Town Attorney James Hall did all the talking – and his opinion about the bylaw was much different.

“There are cases that cover this area and say it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “This is all about First Amendment rights.”

Selectmen had plenty to say this time and most of it makes you wonder if they’ve read the letter from Judicial Watch, the First Amendment or their own bylaw.

The letter was very clear…

“Although these restrictions may be in place to preserve aesthetics or protect traffic safety, the content of the signs is irrelevant. As the Supreme Court has said, political signs are neither greater of an eyesore nor greater of a threat to safety than other types of signs. Simply put, there is no compelling governmental interest to regulate political signs differently and more severely than directional and accessory signs.”

Selectman Alison Hughes was determined to keep restrictions, citing those for special-event signs, such as road races.

“It would fall under that, wouldn’t it?” she asked Attorney Hall.

His answer was “no,” citing recent Supreme Court decisions about free speech. “It’s the number one right, almost next to religion,” Attorney Hall explained. “And it’s political speech, which is the number one right in all free speech.”
That wasn’t good enough. “Nobody wants the town peppered with signs,” Hughes sighed.

“Ya, it’ll be a mess, that’s the only thing,” interrupted Selectman Tami Dristiliaris, a lawyer.

Chairman Jesse Forcier said he thought the time restriction was simply “a gentleman’s rule.” Um, no, it’s right there in the bylaw, Hall and his fellow selectmen let him know.

Selectman Tony Archinski, the selectmen’s representative to the zoning bylaw review committee, mistakenly said he’s been waiting for Chairman John Crowley to schedule a meeting to discuss the issue since November, and asked for the process to be sped up.

I filed my complaint last August. At that time, Archinski expected the meeting to happen in September. When I followed up in October, Archinski said he’d let me know when the meeting was scheduled.

At the selectmen’s meeting March 26th, you know who gave his update, again. You know who didn’t mention the issue, again. You can guess who asked for an update, again.

This time, Attorney Hall said John Crowley would schedule an April meeting to make a recommendation in time for the June town meeting. Finally. But I couldn’t stop thinking about something Hall said at the previous meeting.
“This has been on the front burner—on and off—for 15 years,” he said. “I think it’s a good time, getting a letter like that, to really review it, bring everyone’s attention to it and make a decision one way or the other.”

Great idea. I was starting to think Dracut didn’t care about freedom of speech. After all, it only the took the town 8 months—and 15 years—to set up a meeting to talk about it!

Brian Genest is chairman of the Dracut Republican Town Committee and a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee representing the Second Essex & Middlesex District of Andover, Dracut, Lawrence and Tewksbury. ◊