Civil liberties group claimed violation of free speech and due process rightsAfter receiving a sternly worded letter from the ACLU of Virginia yesterday afternoon, 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 sign, which criticized government officials their role in road construction that diverts customers away from Givens’ store, was removed without warning by city workers early yesterday morning.
After speaking with Givens, the ACLU of Virginia faxed a letter to Salem’s zoning administrator demanding that the sign be returned and that Givens be allowed to post it again. The ACLU claims 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.
Givens’ sign read: “Thank Mayor Tarpley and Forest Jones for this road mess at 375-3016.” Jones is Salem’s city manager. 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.
“Givens’ sign is a non-commercial political statement fully protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis.
“Furthermore, while city officials claim that the removal of the sign was not related to its content, that explanation is hard to swallow,” added Willis. I am willing to bet that there are plenty of other signs in Salem’s business district with non-commercial messages. 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.”
“We are pleased that the City of Salem acted so quickly to restore the sign,” said Willis. “But 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.”
A copy of the letter to Salem’s zoning administrator is available by contacting the ACLU of Virginia at the number below or firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022