Virginia Judge Allows Signs Critical of Local Officials

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
June 19, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU Calls Decision a Victory for Free Speech

RICHMOND, VA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today announced a victory for free speech after a Chesterfield County Circuit Court judge ruled that a homeowner who posted two large signs in his yard criticizing local government officials did not violate the county’s sign ordinance.

C. L. Morrissette was convicted of violating the ordinance prohibiting signs “containing religious, educational or charitable messages or which advertise events for nonprofit organizations” that “exceed eight square feet in area and five feet in height.” Morrissette’s signs were 32 square feet. The county does not place such limitations on other categories of signs.

“We are pleased the court has recognized Morrissette’s right to put up these signs on his own property,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “However, the judge avoided the central question, which is the constitutionality of Chesterfield’s ordinance.”

Morrissette’s signs read, “Welcome to Chesterfield Where Government is Corrupt, Taxes Are High and the Schools are Mobile” and “Ed Barber, Renny Humphrey, Art Warren, Kelly Miller and Lane Ramsey, in their Official Capacity, are Corrupt, Self-Serving Liars. Challenge them to a Polygraph.”

The county argued that the signs were educational and therefore subject to size restrictions. Judge Cleo E. Powell ruled that Morrissette’s signs did not fall in the education category since they expressed his opinions rather than providing factual information. Judge Powell, however, did not address the question of whether the county’s ordinance unconstitutionally restricts signs based on their content.

The ACLU argued that by targeting large signs with some kinds of messages over others — like banning educational signs but not Christmas tree vendor signs — Chesterfield’s ordinance violates the free speech clause of the Constitution.

“We are concerned the county’s ordinance will continue to limit free expression by placing greater restrictions on religious, charitable and educational signs than on other types of signs,” added Willis. “We hope that the case will send a message to Chesterfield County officials that their sign ordinance needs to be revised.”

Morrissette is represented by Charles A. Gavin of Blackburn, Conte, Schilling & Click, P.C., and Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia.

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