A sign issued as part of the city of Dunwoody’s Adopt-A-Spot program. Source: City of Dunwoody

A local activist filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Dunwoody, alleging the city’s Public Works Department violated his First Amendment rights by denying his application for a sign insulting the Public Works Director.

A local First Amendment attorney unaffiliated with the case says the lawsuit raises interesting questions about the city’s Adopt-A-Spot program. The head of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association says the sign is tasteless retaliation by a disgruntled resident.

The applicant’s attorneys filed the lawsuit Aug. 13 and so far the city has not responded.

The city’s Adopt-A-Spot program allows businesses and groups to sponsor the cleanup of a section of roadway. As part of the program, the city places the sponsor’s name on a green sign along the road. Joe Hirsch told the city his group, “Dunwoody’s Public Works Director Michael Smith is a $#%@” would like to participate in the program, according to the lawsuit.

It should be noted the symbols in the group’s name, commonly used to imply curse words, are not being used in this article to censor any vulgarities. That’s the way the group’s name appears in the application.

Hirsch’s application claims the group has 12 members, though the Dunwoody Reporter hasn’t been able to find any incorporation records for the group filed with the Georgia Secretary of State. He described it as a “civic” group on his application.

He filed the application in April to place a sign inscribed with “Dunwoody’s Public Works Director Michael Smith is a $#%@” on Ashford Center Parkway or Chamblee Dunwoody Road. The city denied it few days later.

Hirsch tried again in May to get the city to approve the sign.

“I am resubmitting the Adopt‐A‐Spot application form and expect the city to allow my group to participate, as the city has no legal basis for denial,” Hirsch said in an email. “Please do not cause any more legal problems for the city by arbitrarily refusing this group.”

After an email exchange the city replied that Hirsch wasn’t allowed to use the Adopt-A-Spot program “for a political purpose.”

Hirsch filed an open records request and, according to the court records, the city could not document anything in its policy banning a sign because of its political message or agenda.

In addition to First Amendment violations, Hirsch also claims the city violated his rights to due process, equal protection, and rights granted by the state Constitution.

Hirsch and his attorneys declined comment. A city spokesman also declined to comment, saying the city does not discuss pending litigation.

Alan Begner, a local First Amendment attorney known for his defense of strip clubs and adult novelty stores, said Hirsch has a right to comment about Michael Smith as public works director but might not have the right to use the Adopt-A-Spot program to do it. Begner is currently representing the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union in a case with similar circumstances. The KKK wants to adopt a section of highway in Union County, Ga., but the state has denied the group’s application.

He said Hirsch’s argument is interesting and might succeed, but is on more questionable legal footing than the KKK case, because the name of Hirsch’s group sounds like a political message.

“In the Klan case, for example, the denial is primarily because of the perceived message of the group … a classic violation of the First Amendment,” Begner said. “It’s another thing to be unable to say you meet the requirements for the sign. The Klan makes the requirement for the sign. It’s the name of a group without a message.”

Bill Grossman, president of the Dunwoody Homeowner’s Association, said Hirsch’s sign application isn’t a First Amendment thing. Adopt-A-Spot began as a DHA initiative before it was turned over to the city.

Hirsch and the Public Works Department butted heads last summer when the department provided temporary, reserved parking for teachers and construction workers during the Dunwoody High School renovations. Hirsch responded by putting up his own sign in front of his house that said “Reserved for Joe Hirsch only. Violators will be towed. Approved with same process given to Doster.”

Doster is the construction company that renovated the school. Grossman said a judge fined Hirsch over his homemade sign and his application for the Adopt-A-Spot marker is a continuation of his feud with Public Works.

“Having a sign with that sort of a message on it is not something I would expect the majority of our members to be supportive of,” Grossman said. “I understand the free speech issues, but clearly this is an abuse of privilege.”

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com