Bethlehem officials say they can’t use a local ordinance prohibiting obscene signs to ban a large anti-Biden sign spray-painted with the F-word.
Selectmen Chairman Gabe Boisseau said the issue was reviewed by the town’s legal counsel, who determined that the town shouldn’t try to enforce the ordinance to get Pinewood Motel tenant Ryan Collins to remove his “F--- Biden” sign because it could violate his constitutional right to free speech.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do unless you want to fight First Amendment rights in court, which doesn’t seem like the proper thing to do,” Boisseau said.
Collins, who in early July stuck the sign trashing President Joe Biden next to one supporting former President Donald Trump, rents a unit at the Main Street motel. The sign and other items placed outside Collins’ unit, including an inflatable doll with a sexually explicit message about Biden, have frustrated property owner and landlord Randy Nearing.
Nearing had asked town officials to enforce a sign ordinance that prohibits signs that are “disorderly, unsightly, noxious, offensive, detrimental to the public or to the owners or occupants of adjacent property, or prejudicial to the general welfare of the community.”
Without the town’s help, Nearing has said he likely would have to pursue an eviction, which will cost him money.
Police were called at one point but have insisted that it’s a civil matter between Nearing and Collins, who argues that it’s a free speech issue even though the sign sits on property he doesn’t own.
In support of the decision against enforcing the sign ordinance, Boisseau cited a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Reed vs. town of Gilbert, Ariz. The Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, claimed their freedom of speech was violated after the church was cited for exceeding the time limits for displaying temporary directional signs and for failing to include an event date on the signs.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the town’s sign rules were “content-based regulations of speech that do not survive strict scrutiny.”
Selectmen plan to pursue a few other avenues, but officials acknowledge they could hit more roadblocks.
Boisseau said the board plans to reach out to the Attorney General’s Office to see if there’s anything that can be done at the state level. The state Department of Transportation will also be contacted to see if the sign is too close to the road and in a right-of-way.
“From my perspective looking at them, I’m not sure they are,” he said.
Boisseau said the property owner would have a “greater ability to deal with this than the town does.”
While Collins has said he’s received a lot of support for the sign, Nearing and town officials said they have heard nothing but complaints.
“From what I have heard through email and personal contacts, people are upset about it, especially being on a busy road,” Boisseau said.
He said many of the complaints are about how Bethlehem is trying to promote the town and “having this as signage entering into town is not ideal.”