October 23, 2021

Signs spur questions over legality, enforcement

Cortland County Seal

It was around three or four weeks ago that Cortlandville resident Kathleen Fitzgerald received a citation for a sign she had posted on her lawn.

The citation for the sign, which said, “For the love of God, anyone but Trump 2020,” stated that it was in violation of the town’s code, which prohibits putting up a sign announcing a candidacy for election 45 days before the election date.

For every day that her sign would be up, she would face a $200 fine. But her sign does not advocate for a candidate.

This confused her, as she has seen plenty of signs for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the election campaign of Claudia Tenney, a Republican running for the state’s 22nd Congressional District.

“Driving all over Cortland, you see a million Tenney/Trump signs and Trump/Pence signs,” she said.

Her criticism brings up questions of political bias and whether the town’s law itself is constitutional.

The issue, which Fitzgerald and others brought up at last week’s town board meeting, restarted the conversation on sign enforcement in the town after Cortlandville amended its sign ordinance in March.

Town law prohibits political lawn signs except between 45 days before the last day of voting in an election and 14 days after one — or between Sept. 19 and Nov. 17. But town leaders ruled that signs supporting President Donald Trump are permissible, with a permit.

Town residents have disagreed over whether signs supporting Trump are political in nature or expressions of support for the president, which would be permissible any time of year. The permits limit the signs to 2 square feet.

However, a pair of Supreme Court rulings — in City of Ladu vs. Gilleo in 1994 and Reed et. al vs. the Town of Gilbert Arizona in 2015, generally hold that restricting signs because of their content is unconstitutional.

And in a case in 2013 in Onondaga County, David Rubin of Manlius, the retired dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, sued the town over a law similar to Cortlandville’s — restricting the time when political signs could be posted to 30 days before an election and seven after. He dropped the suit when the town repealed its law.

Town Attorney John DelVecchio said each case is reviewed independently.

“There is absolutely no political bias whatsoever with how the town is dealing with these signs,” he said.

He also said it is not the job of the town attorney to review the constitutionality of town codes but he will examine the language of the code regarding posting of political signs and potentially seek help from constitutional scholars.

Additionally, he will look at the language of similar laws in other municipalities.

If it is found to be unconstitutional, the code would have to be brought before the Town Board for consideration and then potentially amended. This would require a public hearing before a vote.

Robert Spitzer, a distinguished service professor in the political science department at SUNY Cortland, said a locality must have a good reason for requiring the removal of a sign and that political speech is more protected under First Amendment rights than commercial speech, such as a “for sale” sign.

“Even if you had lawn signs seeming constitutional, you cannot say certain political speech is allowable and certain isn’t,” he said.

He also noted that laws such as Cortlandville’s, when brought to court to be challenged, have often been stricken down.

DelVecchio said that from his knowledge, the code has never been constitutionally challenged.

Fitzgerald said that it’s not the content of the signs that bother her, but what she said might be unequal enforcement.

Code Officer Desiree Campbell could not be reached for comment.

Fitzgerald said that she has spoken with different Cortlandville code and planning officials, but plans to have her sign back up unless she gets cited again.