Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Planet of the Glendorans, Part II of III: The Law

A piece of campaign propaganda by Glendora city council candidate John Harrold
Alison Hewitt's recent article in the SGV Trib virtually ended with: "The bottom line on this whole thing is, it's a crime to vandalize someone else's property," said Glendora police Sgt. Brian Summers.

Nice attempt by the good police officer at "the moral of the story," but it kind of falls flat, doesn't it? During an incident of outright campaign sign stealing during the recall a few years back, according to Hewitt's article, some teenagers involved on the other side of the political scene in Glendora were let go because, according to the police: "They didn't think they were doing anything illegal." Technically, that is not a valid legal excuse, of course, but in small matters like these such common sense often applies.

In the most recent case of vandalism it is clear that the teenage girls involved thought that they were posting stickers on illegally placed signs. Everyone seems to admit that the signs were, in fact, illegally placed. As it turns out, the city just doesn't enforce the law. So maybe we ought to add to the moral of the story: "and city ordinances having to do with campaign signs aren't really ordinances or laws, but mere suggestions not meant to be actually followed" in order to really learn our lesson.

If the girls thought the signs didn't belong there in the first place, and the law is on their side, I can totally understand their justification for "vandalizing" them by putting a sticker on them pointing out they were illegally placed. Is it vandalism if someone puts a sign I don't want on my property (illegally) and I destroy the sign and take it down? If the property is public, don't we all own that property and is it only the city that has the right to take or throw things away? Doesn't the leaving of something on public property change things? For instance, is it the same thing as theft if someone takes something left in a public place? Technically, the girls probably did break a law, just as the kids on the other side did the last time around, but surely their reasoning is at least somewhat understandable.

The city attorney says Glendora's law banning all signs on public property might be unconstitutional, which is why it is not enforced (although as Centinel pointed out, the city council has made clear that the law should be applied to campaign signs). One would think that it wouldn't be that hard to determine whether a law banning campaign signs is unconstitutional or not, at least within a few broad parameters. Some very quick poor man's Google research reveals, say, that Scottsdale, Arizona just passed a similar ordinance, a California judge recently protected such an ordinance citing precedent, and, to top it all off, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the City of Los Angeles could ban campaign signs on public property (it helped that the LA ordinance banned all signs on public property, as does the Glendora ordinance). The Center for Individual Freedom (looks like a conservative non-profit), in its document entitled "Sign Ordinances: A Primer on Constitutional Limitations," calls such laws as Glendora's an "easy" case, saying:

The U.S. Supreme Court has made two things clear concerning the issue of sign and billboard regulation. First, a local government may constitutionally prohibit all signs from being posted on public property. Second, a community may not prohibit all signs from being posted on private property without running afoul of the First Amendment.

A published article put out by an organization for Illinois local governments says that "a municipality...may prohibit all temporary signs on public property."

The Glendora ordinance bans all signs on public property. I'm not up on this area of the law, so I could be completely wrong, but where, exactly, is the problem?

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