Delaware Public Media

ACLU defends Milton woman's free speech regarding political yard signs

May 19, 2017

The ACLU of Delaware is suing the town of Milton on behalf of a resident forced to remove political signs from her front yard.


Milton school teacher Penny Nickerson placed four signs with messages like “Love Trumps Hate” and Women’s Rights = Human Rights” in her yard following the 2016 presidential election.

In February, she was told the signs violate town code.

ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Kathleen MacRae says Nickerson came to her after efforts to meet with town officials proved fruitless.

“She tried to settle it herself with city officials, with town officials," MacRae said. "Didn’t get any satisfaction, basically got a couple of letters saying we’re right, you’re wrong – it’s not protected speech, it’s not the First Amendment protection that you claim.”

But Widener law professor Alan Garfield says political messages – especially on yard signs in someone’s own yard – are protected speech.

“It's a classic, cheap, easy, grassroots means of communication," Garfield said.

Garfield says that – and the fact that Milton’s town code permits other messages like professional advertisements to be displayed on yard signs year-round - mean it’s likely the court will rule in Nickerson’s favor.

“When the law regulates based on the content of the message, then the court is very, very strict in its review – it gives what’s called strict scrutiny," Garfield said. "The court is very concerned that the government is deciding what messages people communicate and what messages people can’t.”

Garfield cited a similar case from 1994 - City of Ladue vs. Gilleo - in which the Supreme Court upheld the free speech of a Missouri woman who had displayed yard signs expressing her opposition to the Persian Gulf war.

 

“The court was concerned that – of all the kinds of speech – political speech, when people are questioning the government, the policies of the government, the leaders of the government, that cuts to the very core of what the First Amendment is about," Garfield said.