Under Pressure from ACLU of Virginia, City Allows Bookstore Owner to Post Sign Critical of Public Officials

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
July 7, 2004 12:00 am

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Forced Removal of Sign Violated Free Speech and Due Process Rights, ACLU Says


RICHMOND, VA — After receiving a strongly worded letter earlier today from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, the City of Salem immediately announced that it would allow bookseller Charles Givens to replace a political sign posted at his place of business, the ACLU said.

The sign, which criticized government officials for their role in road construction that diverts customers away from Givens’ store, was removed without warning by city workers early yesterday morning.

“Givens’ sign is a non-commercial political statement fully protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We are pleased that the City of Salem acted so quickly to restore the sign. But,” he added, “we will keep the pressure on until the matter has been completely resolved and Givens is informed that he has the right to post the sign for as long as he wishes.”

After Givens contacted the ACLU about the incident, the group faxed a letter to Salem’s zoning administrator demanding that the sign be returned and that Givens be allowed to post it again. Givens’ sign read: “Thank Mayor Tarpley and Forest Jones for this road mess at 375-3016.” Jones is the City Manager.

The ACLU pointed out in its letter that the First Amendment protects Givens’ right to post a political message on his business property and that the summary removal of the sign by the city without any opportunity to contest the action violated his due process rights.

While allowing the sign to be reinstated for now, city officials have not given in entirely, announcing today that they will confer with their attorneys to determine if there are legal grounds for ordering the sign’s removal. City officials appear to be claiming that the sign violates a local ordinance prohibiting advertising by businesses that is unrelated to the business conducted on the premises.

Willis said that the claim by city officials that the removal of the sign was not related to its content “is hard to swallow.”

“I am willing to bet that there are plenty of other signs in Salem’s business district with non-commercial messages,” he said. “It is quite common, for example, to see patriotic, religious and congratulatory messages posted in front of businesses. The only conceivable reason for removing this particular non-commercial message was that it criticized the mayor and city manager.”

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