Illinois city officials cast vote for tyranny when crews seize yards signs

Wednesday, October 21, 1998

Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s more dangerous: a government official who tramples free-speech rights intentionally or one who does so without knowing any better.

The citizens of Rockford, Ill., are trying to determine just that as they reflect upon the city’s recent decision to seize yard signs in the midst of several hotly contested political races.

On Oct. 7, city crews swept through a number of residential neighborhoods, uprooting and removing more than 150 yard signs as they went. The vast majority of the signs were political, but the city’s haul included “for sale” signs and other advertisements.

The city claimed merely to be enforcing an ordinance prohibiting placement of signs on public property. The crews’ targets, however, included not only telephone and light poles, but also the areas between the sidewalks and the roads. While these strips technically are city property, they routinely are maintained and mowed by homeowners.

The city — the state’s second largest — may have had the legal right to remove the signs. Its motivation for doing so, however, is another troubling example of government’s aversion to the noisy and untidy marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment was designed to foster.

Political yard signs should be viewed as the ultimate triumph of democracy and the First Amendment. Today’s political environment could hardly be more hostile to the average citizen. Political action committees, $500-a-plate fund-raisers and candidates’ allegiance to special interest groups cause most voters to feel irrelevant in national and state elections. Meaningful discussions of issues have given way to sound bites, attack ads and photo opportunities. Door-to-door appeals for votes are as rare as house calls, with candidates now relying on Internet sites, sophisticated direct mailings and pollsters’ telephone calls.

In spite of all of this, yard signs remain an important part of the political landscape. The value of the name recognition that they generate is surpassed only by the priceless bond they establish between citizens and the political system. The most vital speech in a democracy is a citizen’s statement of support for a candidate. Yard signs allow that speech to be made in a forceful, direct and relatively inexpensive manner. Every yard sign, therefore, represents not only an expression of support for a candidate but also a reaffirmation of the democratic process.

Unfortunately, Rockford city officials either failed or refused to recognize the free-speech value of yard signs. They instead spoke of the “blight” caused by “excessive” signs and seemed relieved when neighborhoods once dominated by political yard signs were sign-free.

While intersection safety and other visibility concerns would undoubtedly justify the removal of some signs from some public areas, no Rockford official offered that rationale in defending the sweep. Instead, Rockford seems to have seized the signs only to show that it could.

The city officials’ contempt for the signs was further demonstrated by their blitzkrieg-like assault on the neighborhoods. City crews came without warning, without explaining to homeowners that part of their yards actually are public property. The crews did not relocate the signs onto private property or even leave them lying nearby so that the owners could re-post them in areas permitted by the ordinance. Instead, they hauled the signs away in the back of a pickup, their mission accomplished when visual tranquillity had been restored.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. It is no surprise that some citizens dislike the clutter of yard signs, the cries of candidates and the cacophony of elections. To me, however, there is nothing more pleasing and satisfying before an election than the sight of a street lined with a symphony of yard signs. Whatever their shape, size, color or party designation, the signs reassure all of us that the political system — as flawed as it may be — still works, that citizens still care and that our country’s traditional protection and encouragement of political speech still pays high dividends.

When I see a neighborhood that is especially enthusiastic about political yard signs, I often smile in the knowledge that if I could show a snapshot of the street to people around the world, almost all of them would know instantly that the neighborhood was in the United States. If I showed those same people a snapshot of the Rockford officials ripping up yard signs, however, I suspect that most of them would be surprised — and disappointed — to learn its country of origin.