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DeKalb County, Ga.’s code enforcement officer was firm. The $3 blue tarp posted in a front yard that proclaimed in painted red letters, “Greedy developers suck,” violated the county’s sign ordinance. The two banners of a cat with a ribbon on its tail and a smiling sun hanging above the patio also would have to go, Brookhaven music teacher Katherine R. Nash said she was told. So would the hand-lettered signs by the mailbox offering free Koi fish from her backyard pond and free oak saplings. And, as for the bumper stickers on her car parked in the driveway, they were illegal “mobile signs.” One bumper sticker read: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Keeping the signs would also have been expensive, subjecting Nash, the music teacher with a penchant for yard advertising, to a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail. Ernest Blow, manager of code enforcement for DeKalb, said she was warned to remove the “mobile” and “greedy” signs but the banners were not included in the warning citation. Nash said she told the county code enforcement officer who gave her a warning citation last February and 24 hours to remove the signs: “I wonder what the American Civil Liberties Union would think of this?” On Thursday, the ACLU answered that question with a federal suit filed on behalf of Nash, her husband, Joseph A. Nash, and several other DeKalb County residents that challenges DeKalb County’s sign ordinance as a violation free speech. Nash v. DeKalb County, No. 1:00-cv-1694 (N.D. Ga., July 6, 2000). “The web of regulations operates to severely curtail speech on one’s own property,” according to the suit. ‘The ban sweeps so broadly that it bars political, social, religious, and personally expressive signs, decorations, and flags. In fact, by law, residents are largely barred from placing politically oriented signs, banners or displays in their yards, in their windows, or on their homes.” “We’re looking forward to a judge vindicating their First Amendment rights,” said Robert L. Tsai, an attorney with the ACLU’s Atlanta chapter. LATEST SIGN CHALLENGE The Nash suit is the latest challenge to metro Atlanta sign ordinances. The ACLU also has sued Avondale Estates, Tsai said, challenging the DeKalb city’s ordinance banning all signs in residential neighborhoods, including political signs, real estate signs and banners. Maher v. Avondale Estates, No. 1:98-cv-2584 (N.D. Ga., Sept. 4, 1998). Last January, ACLU lawyers went to federal court again to challenge a Norcross sign ordinance requiring that all business signs in a foreign language include an English translation. Guevera v. City of Norcross, 1:00-cv-0190 (N.D. Ga., Jan. 25, 2000). “I don’t think we’ve gone into the business of challenging sign ordinances, generally” Tsai said. “The city of Norcross’s sign ordinance really has to do with issues of diversity, dealing with non-English speakers in the metro area. “Our concern with the City of Avondale’s and the County of DeKalb’s sign ordinances are a little different. We are primarily concerned with residents’ ability to post signs in their yards, engage in political and social discourse and personally express themselves.” The ACLU isn’t challenging a local government’s right to regulate signage, he said. “But if they want to do so, they have to do so in a way that respects the First Amendment.” COURTS SYMPATHETIC If two recent cases are any indication, the courts are taking a sympathetic view of homeowners who use yard signs to express their opinions. On June 30, Georgia’s Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis in favor of Pauline Gardner, who was sued by a builder for posting a sign in the window of a private home proclaiming, “This lemon is for sale. Built by Janet Ricker Builder, Inc.” “In our opinion, Gardner’s statement that the house is a ‘lemon’ is a constitutionally protected expression of opinion,” the court noted in a written opinion. Ricker Builder, Inc. v. Gardner, No. A00A0568 (Ga. Appeals Ct., June 30, 2000). Last February, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger dismissed as an attempt to stifle free speech a DeKalb developer’s suit against 39 homeowners who posted yard signs saying, “Unhappy Homeowner” after they said the developer failed to respond to their demands for repairs. “We all have opinions which we express regularly,” Seeliger wrote in his opinion. Some of them “go to the core of our being and bring a vigorous defense.” And pure opinion, he said, is protected speech. FLAG RESTRICTION CHALLENGED Several other DeKalb residents are also plaintiffs in the Nash suit. Robert and Eugene Calhoun and Anthony Don George are challenging the ordinance that they say in the suit prohibits them from displaying a rainbow flag as a demonstration of solidarity with the gay and lesbian community. “The ban on flags is virtual except for business flags and government flags,” Tsai said. “There is no way around that one.” State Rep. June Hegstrom is also a party to the suit. She fears the sign ordinance will hamper her re-election effort. The law limits homeowners to two political signs and said they must be set back 17 feet from the street. Signs can’t be posted earlier than seven weeks before an election. Her husband George, according to the suit, thinks the restrictions on political signs are selectively enforced. That is part of the problem, said Tsai. “When you have highly restricted ordinances like the one in DeKalb, it leaves a lot of unbridled discretion in the government to decide against whom they enforce the ordinance.” Government officials, he said, “will tolerate all kinds of eclectic signs and flags that clearly violate the law. And others they will go ahead and cite and prosecute. What happens then is you have a regime that can be manipulated by … what folks feel about the message on someone’s sign or flag.” Blow, who is named along with the county and Code Enforcement Officer Floyd Roper as a defendant in the suit, said Nash was given a warning citation after neighbors complained about the sign. The county’s sign ordinance is identical to the state sign ordinance, Blow contends. The “greedy” sign violated the ordinance not because it was political but because it was unstable and exceeded eight square feet, the maximum size permitted for a political sign in a residential neighborhood. “The contents didn’t bother us,” he said. “It was the way it was constructed.” Blow said Nash’s banners were not included in the warning ciation. He said his officers are only enforcing the county ordinances. “Whatever precedent the court sets, we’re more than happy to enforce,” he said. DeKalb’s sign ordinance has been on the books for at least 24 years and has undergone several revisions, said DeKalb County spokeswoman Susan A. Howell. Former DeKalb County CEO Manuel Maloof said the ordinance was intended to curtail the number of campaign signs that sprouted on trees, telephone poles and along roadsides every political season. “What started all this was that Atlanta didn’t have any real regulations,” Maloof recalls. “They stuck their signs everywhere. … It was mess.” Every campaign season, Moreland Avenue — the dividing line between DeKalb and Fulton counties — “looked like a junkyard,” he said. Maloof said the ordinance was never intended as an absolute ban. “You could put up signs in your yard. You just had to be back from the sidewalk,” he said. “I don’t see how you can argue with that.” The ordinance, he said, has been challenged several times since its inception. “I don’t remember anyone ever beating it,” he said.

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