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Private political signs spark debate of decency

by EMILY BONSANT
Hagadone News Network | April 14, 2022 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — A city resident is voicing concerns about political flags with profanities being flown within view of the community’s youth.

Bonners Ferry claims to be the “friendliest city,” but Russell told Bonners Ferry City Council members at their April 5 meeting that is no longer the case due to some political flags around town. While she understands the signs are part of free speech due to being a political sign, she doesn’t believe these signs are political.

“To me, these are hate signs,” Russell said. “They're hateful, they're angry. They show a lack of civility.”

Russell went on to say that students are going by these signs on their way to school and that similar signs can be seen from the community pool. Another sign she felt had a negative impact on students reads “[expletive] your feelings.”

Russell said she is concerned it could have a negative effect on students as it belittles their emotions.

“What do you think that message does to our kids? How is that OK,” she asked.

She said she doesn’t hear another voice other than these signs.

“I don't hear anybody speaking out about this. And so you may not be able to take the signs down,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the display of political and other types of signs on residential property is a unique, important, and protected means of communication and towns cannot restrict the display of such signs. The decision has not been overturned.

In a 1994 case, the court upheld lower court rulings declaring an ordinance that bans residential signs an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech (City of Ladue, et al. v. Margaret P. Gilleo, 114 S.Ct. 2038). The Ladue, Mo., ordinance banned all residential signs (with some exceptions) to minimize visual clutter in the town. A resident sued, alleging that the ordinance violated her right to free speech by prohibiting her from displaying a sign stating “For Peace in the Gulf" from her home.

The District Court found the ordinance unconstitutional, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the town's interest in regulating signs does not outweigh its residents' right to free speech.

This has been a recurring theme in cases of speech in relation to signs and many times towns or jurisdictions have tried to regulate speech through ordinance in order to “declutter” the view, limit time signs can be up when advertising events or religious events or to prevent political signs from being displayed all year (REED ET AL. v. TOWN OF GILBERT, ARIZONA, ET AL. 2015).

Russell said she agrees the property owners have the right to display the flags due to free speech.

“What happened to the friendliest city,” she asked the city council.

She asked the council to put an action item on the agenda for a future meeting to discuss putting out a statement or a proclamation.

She wanted the council to stand for values that Bonners Ferry has always stood for. She said she feared that the “friendliest city” is not going to stay that way.

“I'm afraid this is becoming us because there isn't another voice,” she said.