By Dan Moffett
Town commissioners gave unanimous final approval to a revised signage law at a Jan. 26 special meeting and — with only Chris O’Hare and Marty O’Boyle, the town’s litigious critics, on hand to offer opinions — immediately faced authoritarian comparisons.
O’Hare likened the law to suppression of free speech worthy of the world’s worst totalitarian states. “In North Korea, anyone speaking ill of Kim Jong Un will be arrested and never heard from again,” he said. “In Cuba, anyone speaking badly of Fidel Castro or his revolution will be arrested and serve jail time.”
O’Boyle told commissioners the ordinance was so poorly and broadly written that logos on baseball caps and T-shirts could constitute violations of signage. He said that besides suppressing free speech, the new law might also suppress religion by restricting a nun’s right to carry her rosary beads — or, worse.
“For you to say that the pope can’t come to Gulf Stream, based on an ordinance you wrote, shame on you,” O’Boyle told the commission.
Mayor Scott Morgan, accused of advancing a law that could bar Pope Francis from Gulf Stream’s borders, said the town was taking reasonable steps to revise its rules in a way that would satisfy the courts and protect rights, not infringe on them.
“Your comments are palpably absurd,” Morgan told O’Boyle and O’Hare. “Comments comparing this town to despotic regimes are insulting and absurd. Your comments are designed to take what is a good-faith effort by this town to pass a reasonable ordinance — and as always apply the ordinance fairly — but your attempts are to position as such so you can advance legal action against it, again costing us time, resources and money.”
In October, the commission voted to pursue a RICO case against the two men, alleging abuses of public records requests and frivolous lawsuits.
O’Hare and O’Boyle have sued the town dozens of times, and one of them was over the sign ordinance last year. O’Boyle ran for the commission in March, and the town removed some of his campaign signs, charging they were placed in rights of way or other public spaces in violation of the existing sign ordinance.
O’Boyle sued in the federal court, claiming suppression of free speech, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in the spring.
In December, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks issued a ruling that had something for both sides to like.
Middlebrooks ruled that Town Manager William Thrasher and Police Chief Garrett Ward couldn’t be held personally liable for removing O’Boyle’s signs, and the town had the right to restrict where signs were placed.
However, Middlebrooks also ruled that O’Boyle could challenge the town’s old sign code because its “content-based restriction” of certain kinds of signs might constitute an infringement of free speech.
Town Attorney John Randolph says that, in writing the new rules, the town is trying to address that concern with a “content-neutral ordinance that will stand constitutional scrutiny.”
The new rules ignore language and treat all signs the same, whether they’re about real estate, political candidates, building names or bake sales. While ignoring content, the rules do regulate “the time, place and manner of signs,” according to Randolph. No sign can exceed four feet in height. Only government signs are allowed on public property or rights of way.
The ordinance defines a sign as virtually any “reading matter, illustration, logo, insignia, sculpture, molding, casting, object, bunting, symbol” or other object that’s designed to attract attention.
Randolph said the new language is drawn from court-tested sign laws in other communities.
“The town will have to make a determination in the future as to how this ordinance will be applied,” Randolph said, “and presumably, the town, as it has done in the past, is going to apply its ordinances fairly.”
Residents will be spared another dispute over campaign signs for at least another year. The town has no March election, after all five commissioners were elected to two-year terms in 2014, the first election in 21 years.