When will these towns learn that there are limits to how much they can control the behavior of their residents?
There’s a Republican in West Long Branch, Joseph Hornick, who likes Donald Trump enough that he likes to fly not one but two flags saying TRUMP on the flagpole outside his house. These flags have been stolen or vandalized over several weeks and he’s had to call the police five times to report it. On March 25, two officers showed up as his door. He assumed, to take down the details of the latest theft.
But he got a surprise; they ticketed him for violating a borough ordinance prohibiting the public display of political lawn signs more than 30 days before an election. Hornick, a former Long Branch firefighter, says the ordinance shouldn’t apply to him. Why? Because flags aren’t lawn signs and his Trump flags are more like the sports team flags fans fly to show their enthusiasm. But the borough attorney got involved and says in fact Hornick’s Trump flags are lawn signs under the ordinance and there are court rulings to back that up.
Well, maybe not, West Long Branch. It looks like if Hornick wants to challenge West Long Branch, he may be on solid ground. Today, I talked to Jeanne LoCicero, Deputy Legal Director at the ACLU-NJ. She confirmed my read of Hornick’s situation with these 3 key points:
- Once a town allows flags, they can’t treat them differently based on the content of any one particular flag.
- Residents in West Long Branch – and every town in New Jersey – have the right to place a political sign in their yard.
- A law banning election-related yard signs during most of the year is unconstitutional because it discriminates based on what is written on the sign.
This looks like another case of ordinance overkill to me; another town that doesn’t realize there are limits to what they can keep people from doing, that sometimes the First Amendment trumps their local rules. I suspect West Long Branch’s borough attorney will find that out soon enough if Hornick is smart enough to call the ACLU and talk it over.**
** I live with a member of ACLU-NJ’s Board. This is the kind of stuff I’d be writing even if I didn’t, but I like to disclose stuff like this.