PALO PINTO—A federal appeals court halted a Texas county’s new rules restricting political signage just one day before early voting started for the May 28 primary runoff election.

The three-judge panel found Sunday that Palo Pinto County Conservatives and Grassroots Mineral Wells, led by local activist Johanna Miller, likely demonstrated how parts of the new orders could violate the First Amendment.

Among the controversial changes were the prohibition of political signs when an election is not upcoming, the limitation of the signs to under 36 square feet, the restriction of candidates to six signs each, and a ban on the signs displayed on permanent structures.

The county also prohibited so-called electioneering by canvassers on sidewalks or driveways outside designated areas.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ injunction applies to all of the above changes but not other rules concerning restrictions on signs that obstruct passengers’ vision or that could damage water or electrical lines.

A new county rule barring the placement of campaign signs in the ground around polling locations where electioneering is allowed was also excluded from the injunction.

The appeal has been expedited to “the next available merits panel.”

Tony McDonald, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, told Texas Scorecard on Tuesday that he was “very excited” the federal court of appeals was taking the issue seriously.

“Citizens have a First Amendment right to talk to voters around polling places,” contended McDonald. “Palo Pinto County violated the First Amendment rights of citizens when they imposed orders restricting electioneering in the county.”

The ruling comes after Judge Terry R. Means of the U.S. District Court in Northern Texas rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for injunction pending appeal on May 7.

In rejecting the injunction pending appeal, Means cited the same reasoning for his rejection of the plaintiffs’ earlier motion for a temporary restraining order.

“The county’s regulations only apply to ‘political’ speech and activity, without discrimination between groups, people, candidates, or causes,” Means wrote. “Thus, they do not offend the First Amendment because they do not seek to discriminate based on viewpoint.”

The plaintiffs’ initial complaint filed on April 16 detailed the origins of the dispute in the county, which led to the amended rules on political signage.

It first started with the hotly-contested Republican primary race between State Rep. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) and conservative activist Mike Olcott, according to the filing.

Olcott supporters, the filing continued, showed up at a key polling location and displayed large election signs from their large flatbed trailer throughout Election Day. He then went on to win the race 63.4 percent to 36.6 percent.

“Not wishing for a repeat of March 5th, Palo Pinto County has adopted its Electioneering Regulations Order on April 8th,” the plaintiffs’ complaint read.

“The April 8th Order imposes many content-based restrictions on speech on the property surrounding the county’s polling location, including the creation of a ‘designated area for electioneering,’” it added.

The Fifth Circuit’s recent actions do not constitute a permanent injunction to the new rules, and the case is going through the courts.

Luca Cacciatore

Luca H. Cacciatore is a journalist for Texas Scorecard. He is an American Moment inaugural fellow and former welder.