September 22, 2016

Policies restricting when people can put political signs on lawns are common but unconstitutional

After a four-year effort, a Bergen County man is close to winning his battle over lawn signs. The Wyckoff Township Committee has introduced a measure that would put its currently unconstitutional sign restrictions, which forbid political signs for more than a month at a time, in line with the law.

The ACLU-NJ, working on behalf of Wyckoff resident Stan Goodman, sent a letter (PDF) that persuaded the Township Committee to change the unconstitutional ordinance. On June 28, police officers came to his door with his lawn signs for candidate Joshua Gottheimer in-hand and told Goodman’s wife that the signs violated the town’s ordinance. After trying to resolve it through meeting with town officials, Goodman called ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, who had helped Goodman with the town’s sign restrictions in the past.

“When police come to your door and tell you to take down signs about your beliefs, it intimidates a community into silence,” said Stan Goodman. “This ordinance went much further than legislating aesthetics – it made people afraid to express themselves under the First Amendment. Someone had to do something, so I felt I had to step forward. I’m grateful that Wyckoff community members will now feel free to display their beliefs without fear of punishment.”

The ordinance had prohibited residents from posting political signs for more than a month at a time, and in Goodman’s case, police told him to remove the signs because it was more than a month before the election. In additions, signs could not be within 25 feet of the curb nor more than four square feet in size. The proposed amendment (PDF) would remove limits based on time and size, and it would ease the 25-foot rule. The remaining restrictions relate almost entirely to issues of public safety and public property.

“In towns throughout New Jersey, officials don’t realize that no matter what ordinance they may have on the books, no local policy can override the Constitution,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Year after year, we hear from residents about sign restrictions that go too far. Towns across the state need to review their sign ordinances to make sure they don’t include unlawful restrictions, because if they do, there’s a good chance they’ll hear from the ACLU.”

Goodman challenged the town’s enforcement of the sign ordinance in 2012 with the ACLU-NJ’s help, and for a time the town stopped enforcing it. To rally against a 600,000-square-foot residential living facility planned for Christian Health Care Center, Goodman and other community members put out lawn signs that said, “Save Wyckoff – Stop the Vista.” A town official told the local press that the signs violated Wyckoff’s ordinance and that each sign carried a $500 fine, even though hundreds of lawns displayed them. Goodman first contacted the ACLU-NJ then. LoCicero sent a letter explaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The ACLU-NJ was forced to send another letter this summer when it learned that it was enforcing the sign ordinance.

“This ordinance might seem unimportant on a surface level, but it deals with the most serious principles we hold as Americans,” Goodman said. “People want a sense that they’re not alone in their opinions, and I have seen the unifying power of lawn signs to galvanize a movement. In 2012, Wyckoff residents saw with their own eyes that concerns about development were more widespread than they may have known, and it gave them the courage to speak out. I am extremely glad that our town has chosen to let that spirit of community flourish rather than chilling it with unconstitutional restrictions.”

Many New Jersey municipalities have laws on the books placing time-based restrictions on political signs without knowing that the Constitution forbids it, and the ACLU-NJ has challenged such ordinances, both in this election cycle representing a Donald Trump supporter in West Long Branch and in previous cycles.

A vote on the final ordinance is expected to take place at the Wyckoff Township Committee’s October 4 meeting. The draft ordinance (PDF), 2016 letter (PDF), and 2012 letter (PDF) can be read online. If your town has an unconstitutional restriction on political signs or you need help with your voting rights, contact the ACLU-NJ.