Ever want a reason to argue with your neighbors? Just cruise through your hood around election time. All of a sudden you’ll discover where they all stand, politically speaking, thanks to all the yard signs declaring their favored candidate.
And perhaps it’s neighborhood strife that Bel-Nor, Missouri was trying to avoid by limiting all residential premises to a single “political advertising” sign and prohibiting the display of political signs more than 15 days after an election. (Wouldn’t want those sour grapes spilling over into physical confrontations.) But the ACLU says the town went too far after police threatened a Bel-Nor resident with jail time if he didn’t remove his “Black Lives Matter,” “Clinton Kaine,” and “Jason Kander U.S. Senate” signs.
Prison Yard for Yard Signs?
According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, Lawrence Wilson received a written warning about the signs from a Bel-Nor police officer, saying they violated the city’s ordinance. If convicted, Wilson could allegedly be fined up to $1,000 and/or imprisoned up to 90 days. Wilson, as any good citizen would, contacted the ACLU, who warned Bel-Nor the ban on political signs was unconstitutional.
While the city repealed the sections of the law pertaining to “political” signs or “political advertising” in September of last year, the statute remained so broad as to outlaw Christmas lights, rainbow flags, and even Post-it notes for the mail carrier, according to the ACLU. “Freedom of speech is at the heart of our nation’s democratic principles,” asserted ACLU of Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman. “The government should be doing everything it can to protect the people it serves, not threatening them with jail time for expressing themselves.”
Free Speech and Political Signs
In 2015, the Supreme Court banned content-based yard sign restrictions. While municipalities are allowed to regulate size, building materials, lighting, moving parts, and portability of yard signs, they can’t ban political or ideological signs on the basis of their messages.
Whether a court will view Bel-Nor’s regulations as content-based remains to be seen, but until then, Wilson’s signs remain up.