9/28/2010Texas City Threatened to Fine Anti-Camera Protester
Baytown, Texas retracts attempt to fine anti-camera protester for holding a sign.
A city official in Baytown, Texas on Thursday threatened a resident with fines of up to $500 for the crime of holding a sign urging passersby to vote against automated enforcement in an upcoming election. Byron Schirmbeck, the organizer of a ballot measure that would ban the use of red light cameras, was merely trying to remind passing motorists of the upcoming November 2 vote in a quiet demonstration held on Wednesday afternoon.
"The city of Baytown observed you holding and maintaining a sign advertising, 'Ban Red Light Cameras' in the city's right of way on Garth Road and West Baker Road on September 22, 2010," Baytown Sign Inspector Debbie Sherman wrote. "It shall be unlawful for a person to intentionally or knowingly erect or maintain a sign on or above property he has no right to occupy without the written consent of the owner of such property. If violations are repeated, charges could be filed against you with the municipal court."
The letter included a photograph of Schirmbeck from the Baytown Sun newspaper showing him holding the sign. Although Schirmbeck knew the charge was bogus, he canceled a planned weekend protest to avoid a potential fine. After he appealed to mayor Stephen DonCarlos, the city quickly reversed itself.
"The city's position on this sign is that your action in the public right of way is a legal expression of non-commercial speech," City Manager Garry Brumback wrote to Schirmbeck yesterday. "The sign inspector believed it was appropriate to treat you just like commercial speech users of the right of way, which are not allowed. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you."
Despite the swift resolution, Schirmbeck believes the incident is a sign of just how desperate some in the cash-strapped municipality are to save the multi-million dollar red light camera program. Schirmbeck has been a particular thorn in the city's side by pointing out that Baytown's own statistics show that after cameras were installed, accidents and injuries jumped forty percent. Schirmbeck wants to get the word out to as many residents as possible as early voting begins on October 18.
"It is still a city official that suppressed my First Amendment rights for three days," Schirmbeck told TheNewspaper. "The fact that the city ordinance is unconstitutionally vague contributed to an employee that should know better being able to misconstrue the ordinance to apply to political protests."
Schirmbeck will hold another protest at the same location at 2pm today. View a copy of the letter to Schirmbeck is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.