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June 2, 2023

Lawsuit claims Hollister law on election signs violates First Amendment

A resident represented by former San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield has sued the City of Hollister claiming the local government’s restrictions of election signs on private property violates free speech rights.

Sarsfield’s Visalia-based law firm, the Law Offices of Melo & Sarsfield, is representing someone under the name of E.A. Von Urff who filed the lawsuit July 2 claiming the local municipal code violates free speech rights in the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, injunctive relief and declaratory relief while claiming the plaintiff, a local resident, has been restricted with regard to election signs due to the local law. More specifically, the civil rights lawsuit is seeking unlimited damages exceeding $25,000, along with an order for the city to remove its election-sign restrictions.

Hollister City Council members discussed the matter in closed session Monday, but did not report anything publicly.

Sarsfield could not be reached immediately when phoned Wednesday at his Visalia office. His law firm has been involved in similar litigation against Tulare, according to the Visalia Times Delta, while other lawsuits have been filed against local communities throughout the nation on the matter, according to media reports.

That lawsuit, meanwhile, has questioned the legality of language in the city code that largely mirrors wording in the state regulations regarding election signs on private property, according to Caltrans.

The lawsuit claims the code section violates the First Amendment in the Constitution “because it purports to impermissibly curtail Plaintiff’s free speech rights following an election.”

The lawsuit goes on: “The Sign Ordinance is content based on its face. It defines the categories of exempt (temporary) signs on the basis of their messages and then subjects each category to different restrictions.” The lawsuit alleges those restrictions depend entirely on the “sign’s communicative content”.

The plaintiff and others “have been chilled from displaying political signs because of their reasonable fear of enforcement of the sign ordinance,” the lawsuit reads.

The litigation is seeking a temporary injunction against enforcement of the election sign section followed by a permanent injunction. Along with damages to the plaintiff, the lawsuit seeks attorney’s fees and reimbursement for the lawsuit’s costs.

It also seeks to direct the city to conduct an educational campaign advising voters of their right to post and maintain political yard signs on private property “regardless of the time of year or relationship to a specific election.”

A case management conference has been scheduled on the matter for 2:15 p.m. Oct. 24. The city was served July 6 by Patrick Sarsfield, who’s listed as not being a registered process server on the lawsuit documents.

Patrick Sarsfield’s possible relation to John Sarsfield is unclear. John Sarsfield is the former, one-term DA in San Benito County who faced a tumultuous tenure. Current DA Candice Hooper succeeded Sarsfield after handily winning the election in 2006 over Sarsfield and Art Cantu.

Hollister election sign code section:

“Temporary noncommercial message signs, not exceeding thirty-two (32) square feet may be placed in any zoning district on private property. Such signs shall be removed within ten (10) days of an election except that signs posted in connection with a primary election may be maintained until ten (10) days following the final election. In the event of cancellation or postponement of an election, such signs shall be removed within ten (10) days following the official action declaring the election canceled or postponed.”