Every day, our reporters cull websites and sort emails from local police departments, as well as the Vermont State Police news releases. What you discover by doing so day in and day out, is that crime, too, has trends.
That makes sense. In warmer weather there are more complaints and police calls about loud parties, fireworks. In winter, there are more break-ins at camps and, around the holidays, the theft of packages left on doorsteps. Unfortunately, there are always drunk drivers and cases of domestic violence. Those are year-round occurrences.
This year is different in that since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, law enforcement has been called to many homes where Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter signs have been stolen or vandalized — many times the targets of trespassers, which is a criminal offense. As is vandalism. As is theft.
At the same time, the political season — which this year feels the most polemic we have seen in the modern age — has led to another layer of attacks on signs supporting one candidate over another. Several recent police reports in Central Vermont have specifically cited Trump signs being damaged, knocked down or tossed into ditches.
These actions have fueled anger and paranoia, as well as fear and intimidation. And while we could not come up with any cases of physical violence as a result of sign stealing or vandalism, there is a violation taking place. Individuals are willing to risk being caught committing a crime to send a message to someone using their constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression.
In fact, we absolutely can have political signs on our private property. (There are pretty strict rules about what can be placed on public roads or in public places and for how long.)
The ACLU notes that there can be limits on your right to display yard signs.
“Unlike oral speech, signs take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative uses for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation. It is common ground that governments may regulate the physical characteristics of signs — just as they can, within reasonable bounds and absent censorial purpose, regulate audible expression in its capacity as noise,” the ACLU writes. And municipalities may have reasonable, content-neutral laws that apply to all signs. For instance, a town may require the signs be no larger than certain dimensions and be placed in a manner so as not to impede visibility on the roads by motorists.
However, “your government may not ban all signs on private property. That would violate our federal and state constitutions by restricting too much speech and limiting a protected form of communication,” the ACLU notes.
Nor do we want government attempting to ban those freedoms.
“Political speech, and particularly political speech on private property, is entitled to the highest form of protection. Therefore, a government may not, for example, allow ‘for sale’ signs while banning ‘Climate Change is Real’ signs,” the group writes on its website.
In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down a municipal ordinance that did just this; it discriminated between signs based on the message. These types of content-based sign ordinances are almost always unconstitutional unless the government can prove their actions were necessary to serve a compelling interest.
Last year, the ACLU of Massachusetts urged cities and towns to suspend any local policies that prohibit the display of political signs on private property and restrict political speech. At the time, several towns put in place ordinances restricting residents’ ability to display signs, including political signs, on private property in residential neighborhoods. “Some of these ordinances limit the period before and after an election during which residents may place signs of support or opposition on political or social issues on private property,” the letter to towns stated.
Fortunately, we are unaware of any towns calling for any restrictions to private property. Several Vermont communities, including the Capital City, have debated when political messaging can be made part of the public landscape. (Montpelier had “Black Lives Matter” painted on State Street in front of the State House, which drew counter-proposals and widespread criticism.)
For sure, these are challenging times, and emotions are high and convictions are being cemented. But we have the right to express ourselves, even if we don’t like what is being stated. And we do not have the right to deface or steal private property; and we definitely should not be trespassing.
We are looking forward to the highlight of the police log to once again be, “Two moose were standing in the road, blocking traffic.”