The ACLU of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against the city of Bel-Nor for unconstitutionally restricting the speech of residents who display political signs in their yards.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bel-Nor homeowner Lawrence Willson, who faces fines and imprisonment for violating Bel-Nor’s ordinance for placing political signs in his yard.

The ordinance prohibits any sign on a window or a wall, as well as limits each residential parcel to a single yard sign.

“This overbroad and vague ordinance is a clear violation of the constitutional right to free speech,” said Tony Rothert, legal director, ACLU of Missouri. “Bel-Nor has chosen to criminalize the speech of the people it serves.”

In June, Willson came home to find a written warning from a Bel-Nor police officer that his signs violated the city’s then-law restricting political yard signs.

On Willson’s behalf, the ACLU of Missouri contacted Bel-Nor and explained that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Sometime thereafter, the now-former mayor of Bel-Nor contacted Willson and said the city planned to rescind the ordinance, so Willson continued to display his signs.

In September, the Bel-Nor Board of Aldermen repealed the ordinance restrictions specific to “political” and “political advertising” signs but reaffirmed oppressive limits on all home signs. The ordinance is worded so broadly that—in addition to yard signs—it criminalizes the display of Christmas lights, rainbow flags, and Post-it notes for the mail carrier.

In December, Bel-Nor’s prosecuting attorney accused Willson of violating the new ordinance because his three signs exceed the one sign allowed in a residential zoning district.

“I’m disappointed in the city’s actions,” said Mr. Willson. “I want to stand up for my rights and my neighbors’ rights to free speech, just like the Constitution says.”

The new ordinance carries a penalty of up to $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment up to 90 days.

“Freedom of speech is at the heart of our nation’s democratic principles,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director, ACLU of Missouri. “The government should be doing everything it can to protect the people it serves, not threatening them with jail time for expressing themselves.”
 

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