ACLU Sides with Farmer Cited for Political Signs Critical of Obama

April 01, 2013

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in support of a Gaines Charter Township man who was cited for placing large signs on his property that are critical of socialism and President Barack Obama.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday, April 4 at 9:45 a.m. before Judge Steven Servaas in 63rd District Court (1950 East Beltline Ave, Grand Rapids).

Vern Verduin, a famer and volunteer firefighter, attached two signs that read “Marxisim/Socialism = Poverty & Hunger,” and “Obama’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ 8% Unemployment 16 Trillion Debt” to truck trailers on his pasture that are visible from the nearby highway.

See the political signs that got a farmer cited

While the signs had been up for a while, according to Verduin, the township only recently cited him for violating the Township’s political sign ordinance, which allows political signs smaller than 20 square feet, yet allows commercial signs to be as large as 32 square feet.

“The right for Americans to express their political opinions has long been considered a cornerstone of American democracy,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “By establishing one narrow set of standards for political speech and a more generous set of standards for commercial speech, Gaines Charter Township is picking sides, making it more difficult for those advocating a political message to communicate.”

In its brief, the ACLU of Michigan argues that the courts have consistently ruled that municipalities cannot treat political speech less favorably than commercial speech.

Nonetheless, political signs in Gaines Charter Township are treated differently than commercial signs. For instance, in addition to allowing commercial signs to be larger than political signs, commercial signs can also be up at any time of year, while political signs are allowed only around elections.

Aukerman continued: “The ability of people to express themselves should not turn on whether their speech is political or commercial. The courts have said repeatedly that political speech does not hold second-place to commercial speech or the aesthetic whims of commission members.”

The Supreme Court consistently provides more protection to political than to commercial speech, and has specifically recognized the unique place that political signs placed on private property play in our democracy.

Every election cycle the ACLU of Michigan sends letters to cities and townships reminding them that restrictions on political signs infringe on residents’ constitutional rights.

In 2004, the ACLU successfully sued the City of Troy on behalf of a President George W. Bush supporter because the Troy ordinance made it a crime to erect a political sign more than 30 days before the election or to erect more than two political signs at a time. A federal court struck down the Troy ordinance as unconstitutional.

Key News and Documents
Read our brief supporting free speech
See the signs that got a farmer cited