“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – Constitution of the United States of America
Americans take their constitutional right to free speech very seriously. One of the quickest ways to anger a person is to limit this right.
This weekend Charlestown’s Founder’s Day will celebrate the theme of the “Grand Old Flag” in seemingly stark contrast to the liberties that the flag represents, and people are confused and frustrated.
What is causing the current frustration?
I’ll give you two examples.
First, the parade rules remind participants that they are “strictly prohibited from participating in any form of political campaigning” during the parade. This rule prevents folks from displaying their campaign signs and literature, and from wearing their campaign t-shirts. The one exception exists for “the major political parties,” who are allowed to have riders and walkers display (but not pass out) their material. (Note that if you’re running for office and are not affiliated with one of those parties then you’re out of luck.)
The second example involves the use of political signage in town. Yesterday the owner of this sign was asked to remove it from the private property on which it was placed, else be subjected to a fine from the city.
Yesterday’s removal struck a nerve because folks remember seeing THIS sign placed only one lot over in 2015. Eric Vaughn’s campaign sign was supported by Mayor Hall without incident.
So what changed? Zoning rules.
Zoning regulations changed in 2016 now prohibit signs on parked vehicles, but this rule was not clearly explained at the time the owner was asked to remove the Neace sign yesterday.
Are these cases of limited freedom of speech? Maybe, maybe not, but maybe we should ask what harm political signage causes? Do the restrictions come from a fear that political content is inherently controversial or offensive? Because it doesn’t have to be. Which creates more harm? Political opinion and signage or a government that restricts people’s right to express themselves?
When a City sets out to determine what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable messages, then it grants itself the ability to restrict those messages in inappropriate ways…ways that tread closely the line of unconstitutional government restrictions.
You can find the full 2016 zoning regulations here: 2016 Charlestown Zoning Regulations