Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Sign Regulations and the Threat to Free Speech

In 2006, auto shop owner Wayne Weatherbee decided to expand his business by purchasing a vacant lot that had once held another auto shop dating back to the 1940s. But zoning officials in the city of Clermont, Florida, determined that Weatherbee's plans for the lot clashed with the city's aesthetic agenda and zoning regulations, so they asked him to first obtain a special permit before doing what he wanted with his own property.

Rather than apply for said permit, Weatherbee posted a dozen signs on his lot criticizing city officials, including the city manager and chief of police. One sign proclaimed:

"Intimidation/Harassment—Selective Law Enforcement—False Arrests—False Documents—What's Next? At Least They Haven't Taken My Freedom Of Speech YET!"

Predictably, the city’s next move was to take away Weatherbee's freedom of speech.

Since the 1950s, the United States Supreme Court has unfortunately held that basic constitutional liberties should yield to the government's self-proclaimed interest in tailoring local aesthetics. Writing for a unanimous Court in 1954, Justin William O. Douglas upheld Congress' decision to eliminate a supposedly blighted African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

"The concept of public welfare is broad and inclusive," wrote Douglas, and it includes "aesthetic as well as monetary values." It was the government's prerogative to "determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled," according to Douglas.

In December 2009, Clermont cited Weatherbee for violating city ordinances governing the display of signs on commercial property. All signs required permits unless they fell into an exempt category. There was an exemption for "temporary political signs," but that only applied to "a sign or poster advertising either a candidate for public office or a political cause subject to election." It did not cover Weatherbee's signs, which attacked public officials outside of the electoral process.

The Clermont Code Enforcement Board decided to fine Weatherbee $75 for every day he refused to take down the sign. His response was to file suit, and in March of this year, he finally prevailed. U.S. Senior District Judge William Terrell Hodges ruled in Weatherbee's favor, finding that Clermont's sign code was unconstitutional. Hodges chided city officials for arbitrarily distinguishing between purportedly political messages and other types of signs.

Unfortunately, Weatherbee's victory is the exception rather than the norm



Anonymous said...

Why should life be so difficult? Oh, I forgot that those who preach inclusion only include those of like minded opinions. Any criticism and you might as well move elsewhere because the bigots hate you no matter what they say. There are still pockets of resistance where you would be welcomed with open arms should you be a conservative but your days are numbered.

Bird of Paradise said...

Darn stuffed shirt high-brow snobs they all need to have their own property zoned against eletists snobs