PETERSBURG – The Upper Township administration had an answer for a question related to U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s (R-2nd) yard signs opposing the wind farm projects.
“They are not considered political signs,” Administrator Gary DeMarzo said at the Upper Township Committee meeting Sept. 11.
DeMarzo said he had fielded questions from some residents who contacted the township regarding a number of signs being put up reading, “Stop Windmills – Save Our Shore,” followed by “Jeff Van Drew for U.S. Congress.”
Some argued that the signs are essentially election campaign signs, and were distributed by the Van Drew reelection team. The belief was the signs violated a local ordinance that prevents election campaign signs from being put out 45 days before an election and removed within 10 days after the election.
DeMarzo said he respectfully disagreed with the notion that the “Stop Windmills” signs are actually campaign signs, saying that nowhere on the sign is it written “Vote” or “Elect” or “Reelect,” etc. DeMarzo said the signs more accurately convey a civic message rather than a political one.
“It’s Jeff Van Drew’s opinion and he happens to be a U.S. Congressman,” DeMarzo told the Herald.
DeMarzo said for him it’s a matter of the amount of time a temporary sign remains where it’s posted. He said such signs have a 60-day life expectancy in Upper Township. The municipal code allows temporary signs to be displayed for not more than 60 days, except for political signs. DeMarzo said there is an issue of when the clock starts on the 60 days, which is generally from the time when the violation was identified, not when someone said it occurred.
“What I explained to various people who called in about the signs is that the time window starts when we identify the location of the sign,” he said.
Ron Filan, Van Drew’s campaign manager and director of political affairs, said he doesn’t believe the signs are bound by any time restriction.
“We started distributing signs months ago and will continue to do so until these projects are defeated,” he said.
DeMarzo said there is a distinction between political signs and nonpolitical or commercial signs. Frank Corrado, an attorney with an office in Wildwood, said he dealt with the issue of yard signs in a particular town when he was a municipal solicitor there, and it is a very serious issue when you consider the First Amendment implications.
“I don’t think you can regulate them and say the signs can only be up a certain time before the election,” Corrado said. “You may say take them down after a certain time, but even that is problematic.”
Corrado pointed out that there are “Trump 2024” flags, which are essentially campaign signs, which have been flown for years. He said attempting to limit or ban campaign signs is essentially regulating the content, which was the subject of the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in City of Ladue, et al. v. Margaret P. Gilleo.
In this case, the City of Ladue, Missouri, attempted to prohibit a homeowner, Margaret Gilleo, from posting a sign in her yard that read, “For Peace in the Persian Gulf.” Gilleo complied when told to remove the sign from her yard, but then put a letter-sized sign in the window of her home with the same message.
The city told her to remove that sign as well and in 1994 the Supreme Court upheld an Appellate Court decision saying the town’s ban on signs on private property was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court did not accept Ladue’s ban on signs for city aesthetic reasons, saying, “The court refused to accept the aesthetic justifications for the ordinance offered by Ladue and reaffirmed an individual’s right to speak freely in his home. The court held that although the government may regulate the physical characteristics of signs, the First Amendment prohibits content-based regulation. Ladue’s ordinance was simply too broad and it effectively eliminated one avenue of speech.”
Corrado said that just because something is prohibited in an ordinance doesn’t mean the ordinance comports with state or federal law.
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