Glen Carbon sign ordinance raises free speech concerns
Residents who put out anti-hate yard signs in the Ginger Creek neighborhood say a village ordinance regulating temporary signs violates their right to free speech, a concern the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says is legitimate.
Stickers from the village Building and Zoning Department appeared recently on signs in the neighborhood. The signs read “Hate Has No Home Here,” and residents say they’re meant to tell neighbors their home is free of hate speech and behavior. The phrase is repeated in five other languages on the signs.
The stickers order residents to remove their signs by a particular date. They’re the result of a recently revised village ordinance, according to Building and Zoning Administrator David Coody. The original ordinance dictated rules depending on what the sign was for, Coody said.
The revisions are meant to “make our sign ordinance as content-neutral as possible,” Coody said, an effort to comply with a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that said government bodies can’t regulate signs based on content.
But the new ordinance also puts a time limit on signs. Temporary signs of any kind, no matter their content, can only remain standing for 90 days within a calendar year, according to the newly revised ordinance.
Under the rule, Sherry Turpenoff and Joe Galbraith, a married couple who have lived in the Ginger Creek neighborhood for 12 years, must remove their sign by Oct. 9.
Galbraith says he and Turpenoff put the sign in their yard because they “truly believe diversity makes a country stronger.”
“We feel strongly about what’s going on in the country in general,” Turpenoff said. “I think we’re in deep trouble when we’re this divided.”
Galbraith said someone passed the signs out around the neighborhood several months ago, though he did not remember who exactly gave them their sign.
“People should have a right to put up a sign,” Turpenoff said.
The village agrees, Coody said, but decided to place a time limit on the signs to avoid a negative “aesthetic appeal to our neighborhoods.” People living in residential areas of the village can place up to four signs in their yard, according to the ordinance.
Ginger Creek resident Erika Kohoutek says the ordinance constitutes “suppression of speech.”
“I specifically picked Glen Carbon to move to because of the values of this area,” Kohoutek said. “I feel like it’s not in alignment with the values of diversity and inclusion... so it’s disappointing.”
Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said the ordinance “does raise some constitutional concerns about limiting people’s rights to speak out and to do so on their own property.”
The ordinance might also violate an Illinois state statute that says there cannot be any time limits on political signs, Yohnka said.
The ordinance comes during a time when Americans are deeply involved in political debates, Yohnka said. The ordinance went into effect May 22.
“They changed this ordinance this year, so in the middle of this period of time when you really have people engaged in kind of public policy debates in a way for many people they never have in their life,” Yohnka said. “When people are thinking about issues ranging from health care to immigration to basic civil rights, to place limits on someone being able to promote their point of view in their yard in their property in the most intimate way ... This is really a kind of troubling, difficult and really counter-productive sort of step.”
Yohnka said lawyers at the ACLU who reviewed the ordinance said it would be “worth some reexamination by the village.”
“It would be wise to step back ... to think more about what you do to promote people participating in the electoral system and in our body politic in any way they can,” Yohnka said.
Kohoutek, the Ginger Creek resident, said she wonders how the village plans to enforce the ordinance.
“If they’re going to start putting stickers on signs they better be prepared to put them on all the signs,” Kohoutek said.
The building and zoning administrator said all temporary signs, no matter their content, will be treated the same.
“(The sign) could say, ‘We don’t like Barack Obama,’ or ‘We don’t like Donald Trump,’ 90 days is what they have put up,” Coody said.
Supreme Court rulings on signs and freedom of speech
A Supreme Court ruling from 1994 addressed the issue of expressing freedom of speech through temporary yard signs.
In December of that year, a resident of Ladue, Mo., placed an anti-war sign in her front yard protesting the Gulf War. The city removed Margaret Gilleo’s 24-by-36-inch sign multiple times.
When she called police, they told her such signs were not allowed in the city of Ladue. So, she sued the city, saying her First Amendment rights were violated when city workers removed her anti-war sign.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, whose justices decided unanimously that Gilleo had a right to express free speech through the signs on her own property. Though the court recognized the city has a right to reduce visual clutter for safety, justices said the ordinance went too far by “almost completely” prohibiting “an important and distinct medium of expression to political, religious, or personal messages.”
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote on behalf of the Supreme Court: “A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of this Nation’s culture and law, and has a special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person’s ability to speak there.”
The 2015 Supreme Court ruling addressed a code in the town of Gilbert, Arizona. The code came into question when town leaders told leaders with the Good News Community Church they had violated the town’s rules by keeping temporary signs up for too long. The signs advertised the church’s Sunday services.
The church filed suit, saying the town violated its freedom of speech.
The Supreme Court found the town’s code indeed violated freedom of speech because it targeted speech based on its content.