Court Rules: “Banners That Town Called Obscene” Can Stay Up
A New Jersey woman can leave up several banners that use what local officials called an obscenity to express her hostility toward President Joe Biden, a state court ruled Tuesday.
The ruling came after the woman, Andrea Dick of Roselle Park, enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to fight a municipal judge’s order that she take the banners off a fence outside the house where she lives with her mother or face $250 a day in fines.
After the civil liberties group joined the case, Roselle Park officials backpedaled on their earlier demand that Dick take down the banners and effectively dropped the matter.
“I feel amazing,” Dick, 54, said after the Superior Court of New Jersey dismissed the case, which was brought against her mother, Patricia Dilascio, who owns the home where the banners have hung since the Memorial Day weekend.
“I’m glad it’s over,” added Dick, who said she had gotten angry calls and at least 20 pieces of hate mail from as far away as California, North Carolina and Texas after reports about the dispute over the banners attracted national attention.
The clash was the latest such episode to emerge from America’s fractured political landscape and to highlight the delicate balance local officials must sometimes strike between defending free speech and responding to concerns about language that some residents find offensive.
The conflict involved three of 10 banners that Dick, a die-hard supporter of former President Donald Trump, had hung at the house. They included a crude word whose use the Supreme Court long ago ruled could not be restricted simply to protect those it offends.
Roselle Park officials, citing complaints from neighbors and concerns that children on their way to a nearby school could be exposed to the vulgar language, asked Dick to remove the banners. When she did not, she was issued a summons for violating a local obscenity ordinance and ordered to appear in borough court.
There, Judge Gary A. Bundy ruled against Dick, saying there were “alternative methods for the defendant to express her pleasure or displeasure with certain political figures in the United States” and noting the home’s proximity to a school.
“Freedom of speech is not simply an absolute right,” Bundy added, while noting that “the case is not a case about politics. It is a case, pure and simple, about language. This ordinance does not restrict political speech.”
Dick vowed to challenge the ruling on free speech grounds, and the civil liberties group stepped in, filing a brief on her behalf in Superior Court. At that point, Roselle Park officials reversed course and dismissed the summons.
In a statement, Jarrid H. Kantor, the borough attorney, said Roselle Park stood by the summons and agreed with Bundy’s decision.
“However,” Kantor continued, “the borough feels that the continued attention garnered by the inappropriate display and the escalating costs to the taxpayers of continuing to litigate the matter causes far greater harm to the borough, as a whole, than good.”
Mayor Joseph Signorello III called the matter a “moral loss” for Roselle Park, a town of 14,000 people about a 40-minute drive from Times Square that voted overwhelmingly for Biden in November.
“Those signs are offensive,” said Signorello, a Democrat. “And were I a neighbor, I would be offended.”
“You cannot legislate decency,” he added, “and I think that’s a sad reality.”
The civil liberties group hailed the court’s action as an “uncomplicated” victory for free speech.
“The First Amendment exists specifically to make sure people can express strong opinions on political issues, or any other matter, without fear of punishment by the government,” Amol Sinha, the executive director of the group’s New Jersey chapter, said in a statement.
Alexander Shalom, the group’s senior supervising attorney, responded to Kantor’s reference to the potential cost of litigation by saying it was “fiscally prudent” for Roselle Park to drop the matter because it was “a sure loser for them.”
Thomas Healy, a Seton Hall University law professor, had predicted in an earlier interview that the move to compel Dick to remove the banners was doomed. He cited a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Cohen v. California, that turned on the question of whether the same word at issue in Dick’s case was obscene.
“I’m not surprised,” Healy said Tuesday after learning that Roselle Park officials had backed off. “They never should have brought the case to begin with.” Still, he added, it was “no small matter to put Ms. Dick through this.”
Conflicts like the one involving Dick have come up this year on Long Island; in Indiana, Tennessee and Connecticut; and elsewhere.
On Wednesday, the code enforcement board in Punta Gorda, Florida, is set to rule on a summons issued to a resident for violating a recently adopted indecency provision by displaying an anti-Biden banner with a similarly crude message.
Jay Nadelson, a member of the board, said he believed the provision was unconstitutional. Asked how he thought the meeting on Wednesday would go, he said he expected it to be “contentious.”
Signorello of Roselle Park said the borough planned to alter its regulations to limit how much signage can appear on a homeowner’s property. Dick’s banners would most likely not be subject to any new rules because she hung them before any changes occurred, he said.
As far as Dick is concerned, the banners are not going anywhere.
“What’s up there is staying until I’m told differently,” she said.
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