ST. LOUIS (CN) — Prosecuted for displaying Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter signs in his yard, a suburban St. Louis man has sued his city for threatening him with jail time for sticking more than one political sign on his front lawn.
The ACLU of Missouri filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Bel-Nor resident Lawrence Willson on Tuesday. A Bel-Nor ordinance punishes residents with a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail if they post more than one yard sign.
Bel-Nor, pop. 1,499, whose per capita income of $46,534 is more than twice the state average, is 12 miles northeast of St. Louis.
After city police warned Willson in June last year that he was breaking the law, the city attorney filed a complaint against him in December because he had three signs in his front yard. The third one supported Jason Kander, the Missouri secretary of state, a Democrat, who was running for governor. Kander lost to incumbent Roy Blunt, but gained fame for a TV commercial in which he assembled an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded.
Willson says the “one sign” law in Bel-Nor is unconstitutional, in what appears to be a slam dunk. On the same day in June that Bel-Nor police warned Willson he was breaking the law, “police officers also left written warnings for other Bel-Nor residents who had ‘Clinton Kaine’ signs displayed on their lawns,” Willson says in the complaint.
ACLU of Missouri legal director Tony Rothert said half a dozen people received written warnings under an ordinance that Bel-Nor rescinded late last year.
“What it comes down to is that the city does not have a strong enough interest to limit one's own political speech on one’s own property as severely as the city tries to do,” Rothert said in a phone interview.
The Bel-Nor ordinance also barred political signs from lawns more than 15 days after an election. After Willson and others got their warnings in June, the ACLU complained to then-Mayor Christina Buchek, who told Willson the city was planning to change the ordinance. Based on Buchek’s assurances, Willson kept his yard signs up.
In September, the Bel-Nor Board of Aldermen did repeal restrictions on political signs but replaced the ordinance with a new one that restricts political messages, Christmas lights, and could even apply to Post-it notes left for mail carriers, according to the ACLU.
The new ordinance restricts each residential parcel to one yard sign and bars homeowners from displaying signs in their windows and within 10 feet of any property boundary. It also bars obscenities and a sign that “‘flutters’ or otherwise moves,” according to the complaint.
The ordinance includes language supporting the First Amendment, but says the city has a responsibility to protect the public safety, health and the welfare of its residents.
After the new ordinance was enacted, Bel-Nor’s prosecuting attorney Stephanie Karr filed a complaint against Willson accusing him of violating the new law.
Karr is the controversial former city attorney and prosecutor in Ferguson, who resigned from that position in May 2016, according to the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly.
“I’m disappointed in the city’s actions,” Willson said in a statement. “I want to stand up for my rights and my neighbors’ rights to free speech, just like the Constitution says.”
Willson was due in municipal court Wednesday afternoon, where he was to plead not guilty, Rothert said.
He seeks damages, an injunction preventing enforcement of the ordinance and a court order declaring its unconstitutionality.
“Freedom of speech is at the heart of our nation’s democratic principles,” said ACLU of Missouri executive director Jeffrey Mittman. “The government should be doing everything it can to protect the people it serves, not threatening them with jail time for expressing themselves."
Bel-Nor and Karr did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Bel-Nor has an area of 5/8 of a square mile. It is 49 percent white and 46 percent African-American. Its per capita income of $46,534 is more than twice the state average.
The movie “The Exorcist” is said to be based on an exorcism that happened in Bel-Nor in 1949.