A judge in New Jersey has ruled that a homeowner must remove the “obscene” political signs from her yard within a week or she will face a daily fine.
According to NJ.com, Gary Bundy, a municipal court judge in Roselle Park, ordered the homeowner, Patricia Dilascio, to remove the signs within seven days or she will be forced to pay a $250 fine for each day the signs remained up. The three signs affected by the court ruling include the phrase “F*** Biden,” and were put out by Dilascio’s daughter, Andrea Dick.
While this should undoubtedly be considered a free speech issue, there is some context here for people to consider.
Joseph Signorello III, the Democratic mayor of Roselle Park, previously said the signs displeased some residents due to the home being close to an elementary school. Signorello said the issue had “been brought to our attention less because of the political aspect of it, but the vulgarity of it,” according to NJ.com.
The signs did not formally become a problem until a code enforcement officer for the borough was called by the mayor regarding the signs, according to the officer’s court testimony. Last month, the officer investigated, issued a violation notice, and when the sign had not been taken down after a few days, issued a court summons.
The violations in question have to do with a local ordinance regarding obscenity.
According to the Borough of Roselle Park, NJ Municipal Code, it is against the law for anyone to “display or exhibit any obscene material, communication or performance or other article or item which is obscene.”
“Obscene,” meanwhile, is defined under the code as “any material, communication or performance which the average person applying contemporary community standards existing within the municipality, would find, when considered as a whole: Appeals to the prurient interest; Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct as hereinafter specifically defined, or depicts or exhibits offensive nakedness as hereinafter specifically defined; and Lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
This language is similar to the definition of obscenity issued in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court Miller v. California case, which determined that the First Amendment did not protect obscene materials, according to Oyez, a United States Supreme Court archive.
The homeowner was only directed to remove the signs displaying the word “f***,” according to NJ.com. Other anti-Biden signs can stay.
Filings from the borough’s attorney, Jarrid Kantor, which were read in court, posited that freedom of speech was not an “absolute right” because certain unprotected speech could be considered subject to limitations, within reason, NJ.com reported.
Meanwhile, a lawyer representing Dilascio, Michael Campagna, said that obscenity standards have evolved throughout history and that the use of the F-word toward another person, as in the case of the signs, does not contain any sexual connotation in modern times, but is merely a “colloquialism,” according to the report.
When making his ruling, Bundy rhetorically asked if there could be a balance between a parent having to describe to their child the definition of the vulgar word and Dilascio’s free speech, NJ.com reported.
Dilascio can appeal the decision within 20 days.
It is easy for anyone to see why people might be upset by the vulgarity of the signs. Most can understand why their fellow citizens, parents especially, are hyper-vigilant when it comes to what their children are exposed to.
In this day and age, where parents are fighting for the well-being of their children, their outrage certainly makes sense.
However, I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in his 1950 novella, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” that censorship is akin to “demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.”
Simply put, the government should not be allowed — regardless of what any local ordinance might say — to hinder someone’s right to utilize their freedom of speech anywhere, let alone on private property.
This scenario certainly appears to be an infringement on those rights, and a lawsuit waiting to happen — especially when one considers the ruling in another Supreme Court case, Cohen v. California, decided two years before Miller v. California.
According to Oyez, the court ruled in favor of a young worker who wore a coat that displayed his antipathy toward the Vietnam War with the same type of expletive phrase currently being labeled obscene in Roselle Park, New Jersey.
It seems pretty clear: If one can wear clothing with vulgar, expletive phrases on it out in public for all to see, then one can surely utilize similar expressions on their own private property.
While there are a few particular limits to the concept of freedom of speech, it is ultimately a natural right given to all of us.
We are protected by our country’s Bill of Rights from the government — at any level — impeding our First Amendment rights to free speech. No government official or policy should have the ability to take that away, regardless of how much we dislike or hate how others choose to express those rights.
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