Civil liberties group claims violation of free speech and due process

In a letter faxed today to Salem’s chief zoning official, the ACLU 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. According to the ACLU, the sign is protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The ACLU also says 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 letters 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 claims 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
“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 her letter to Aldridge, faxed earlier today, ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg writes: “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 Glenberg’s letter to Aldridge is found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20040707-Salem-Snippy-Sign.pdf.

Contacts: Kent Willis , Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022

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