ACLU of Virginia Says City of Salem Must Allow Bookstore Owner to Restore Political Sign
Removal Violated Free Speech Rights and Due Process Protections
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
RICHMOND, VA — In a letter faxed today to Salem’s chief zoning official, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia demanded that a bookstore owner be allowed to display a sign criticizing the mayor and city manager for their role in road construction that has diverted customers away from his business.
Letters displayed on the sign — reading, “”Thank you Mayor Tarpley and Forest Jones for this road mess at 375-3016″” — were reportedly taken down from the front of Givens Books, owned by Chip Givens, under the orders of Salem Building Official and Zoning Administrator Charles B. Aldridge. Aldridge claimed that the sign violates a local ordinance prohibiting advertising signs that are unrelated to the business conducted on the premises. Aldridge returned the letters today but told Givens not to reconstruct the sign.
“”Givens’ sign is a non-commercial political statement fully protected by the First Amendment,”” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
Willis also said that the city, which removed the sign without notice, did not have the right to take the sign without giving the owner an opportunity to contest the removal administratively or in court.
“”The City of Salem may claim that the removal of the sign was not about its content,”” added Willis, “”but I am willing to bet that signs in Salem’s business districts are used for non-commercial messages all the time. It is quite common to see patriotic, religious and congratulatory messages posted on signs in business districts. The only conceivable reason for removing this sign was that it criticized a public official.””
In a letter to Aldridge, faxed earlier today, the ACLU said: “”Local governments may regulate the size, number and types of signs to achieve such objectives as aesthetics, historic preservation, and traffic safety. But government may not regulate the content of speech unless the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. This is particularly true when political speech is affected. The Supreme Court has said that political speech is at the ‘core’ of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.””
A copy of the letter to Aldridge follows.
Via Facsimile (540/375-3003) and Regular Mail
Charles B. Aldridge
Building Official and Zoning Administrator
City of Salem
P.O. Box 869
Salem, Virginia 24153
I am writing on behalf of Chip Givens to object to your unlawful removal of letters from a sign on the premises of Givens Books. Based on the article in this morning’s Roanoke Times, it appears that you did not object to the sign structure, but to the words on the sign: “Thank Mayor Tarpley and Forest Jones for this road mess at 375-3016.” You said that this message “”didn’t have anything to do with his business.”
Local governments may regulate the size, number and types of signs to achieve such objectives as aesthetics, historic preservation, and traffic safety. But government may not regulate the content of speech unless the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. This is particularly true when political speech is affected. The Supreme Court has said that political speech is at the “”core”” of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.
Moreover, even if the words on the sign could have been lawfully removed, your summary removal of them was unconstitutional. Such a prior restraint on free speech was one of the prime evils that the country’s founders sought to prevent when they enacted the First Amendment. Any person whose speech is alleged to be unlawful should be given notice of the problem and an opportunity to appeal to the courts before his speech is suppressed.
I therefore ask that you immediately provide Mr. Givens with written assurances that he will be allowed to replace the letters on his sign without penalty.
Should you have any questions, please feel free to call me at (804) 644-8080. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Rebecca K. Glenberg
Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia
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