Free signage or free speech?

Waynesburg University

At Thursday, Oct. 20th’s Greene County Commissioners meeting, two Greene County residents raised concerns over the legality of profanity in publicly displayed signage. Janice Gottschalk and Linda Winegar, both members of Greene Together, requested the commissioners form a committee that would regulate the offensive language.

“Your speech is not free,” Gottschalk said. “There are some unprotected speeches.”

The signs the women referred to consist of negative opinions of the current presidential administration. Gottshalk listed the signs as being located in private yards facing Route 19 and Route 21, as well as in local neighborhoods. She then pointed out how they express vulgar language and convey potentially racist and offensive verbiage. Gottschalk and Winegar both believe the signs portray a disturbing image of Greene County as a whole. They fear this will deter prospective residents, university students, and business owners.

“As a business owner myself, I certainly would not choose to site a business in an area with such an unwelcoming atmosphere as it appears now, with such a lack of respect for others. Nor would I choose to move to such a community,” Winegar, the owner of Winegar Pottery, said. “As a parent, I would certainly have reservations, second thoughts, about sending a child to college- to a university and a place that seems to be so unwelcoming and intolerant.”

Winegar and Gottschalk claimed the commissioners do have the power to intervene and regulate the signs.

“While I believe in free speech, and the right of every citizen to express themselves, I believe there’re also limits when it comes to obscene language in public places,” Winegar said.

Gottschalk added how a possible signage committee could be granted under state authority. She referenced Title 18 of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. She argued that the title extends state regulation of signage to a community if the community does not currently possess sign ordinances. Gottschalk examined other county examples of ordinances and urged the commissioners to act.

“With a commission that regulates the signage, what it means, the sizes, how long it can stay there, then you do have power,” She said. “We can still express ourselves by using words that don’t incite, bully, divide, or racially insult our fellow citizens.”

Commissioner Mike Belding responded to both of the women’s comments, noting how other businesses have complained.

“We’ll further look into it,” He said. “We’ll work within the authority of the law.”

Both Winegar and Gottschalk also raised concerns over the signs’ potential harmful impact on children. They described how children are taught one way of behavior in the classroom setting, but then observe the complete opposite in the community.

“[The signs] are quite offensive and confusing in some ways,” Gottschalk said. “First of all, we’re not setting a very good example to our children in non-school settings. We give them all sorts of rules to follow, then we get out of school and nobody follows these rules.”

Commissioner Blair Zimmerman agreed with the possible threat the signs pose in negatively influencing the children of Greene County. He felt disappointed with the signs and was especially disappointed with the adults’ decision to show children this type of message.

“We’ve got adults that’re putting that kind of language out in public that every kid, that we’re trying to raise kids and teach them the right things, and adults, ya know, are putting out that kind of message. What’s this country come to?” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman also addressed the concern over future business harm. He offered to assist the cause in improving the signage situation.  

“One of the first times I saw one of those signs, I called Franklin Township, I called the State, and I’ll just be honest with you, basically they told me they couldn’t do a thing about it, First Amendment. I disagree.” Zimmerman said. “I am absolutely offended that people would do that to our children.”

Winegar emphasized the idea of the signs not aligning with Greene County’s goal of attracting people. She pointed out one of Belding’s Facebook comments promoting a vision of attracting people to Greene County and keeping it a safe place. She does not believe the signs adhere to this value. 

Winegar also read a letter from Greene Together to the commissioners, addressing the concerns over potential business loss due to the signs.

“We, the members of Greene Together, fully support any citizen’s right to fly a flag from their porch to show support for a candidate or place signs,” Winegar read from the letter. “However, these offensively worded messages reflect poorly on our county and everyone who lives here. What kind of impression of Greene County do they portray?”

 After reading the letter, Winegar reiterated the concerns she believes the commissioners should hold regarding the county’s image.

“I think that it’s just unbelievable that we allow signs to exist like this that are unwelcoming, and you know, that’s what we’re trying to do, attract others into our community,” Winegar said. “They’re not gonna want to come to a community that puts that out there as their face. That is our representation of our face.”

 Winegar, like Gottschalk, analyzed the legality of sign regulation. She pushed the idea that the commissioners legally do possess power to regulate the signs.

“There are things that can be done,” Winegar said. “It’s up to you to take the action on making that vision come to fruition, and the signs aren’t doing that.”

In an interview after the commissioners meeting, Gottschalk and Winegar explained their reflection of the signage process so far. They both hope the commissioners will take their concerns seriously and realize they do have the power to act. 

 “Now that we have spoken, hopefully they will look into it,” Gottschalk said. “I mean it’s already been done by Lancaster, PA.”

A later search for the Lancaster information revealed a sign ordinance issued in 2017. And then 

According to the city of Lancaster’s website, the city regulates the dimensions and locations of signs. Residents must maintain the appearance and relevance of signs; signs need to be removed if they advertise a past event. As for language, the only wordage regulated are terms that can pose as a safety threat to pedestrians and motorists.

“No sign, visible from a public street, except a public sign, shall use the word ‘stop,’ ‘danger,’ or any other word, phrase, symbol, color, character or representation which could be interpreted by a motorist as being a public safety warning or traffic sign” The ordinance stated. 

In the interview, Winegar challenged a Facebook comment written by Belding. She argued that allowing this type of signage does not align with his promised vision.

“It’s okay to say those things, it’s fine to have that vision, but how are you going to make that vision a reality?” Winegar said. 

Winegar noted how the sign regulation is not unpopular. Other PA counties regulate signs, such as Allegheny County and Montgomery County. She wants to know why Greene County fails to do so.

A search performed later on the Montgomery County website, revealed signage ordinance explanations. The site explains the reasoning behind size and location regulations. The county intends to promote public safety, while also complying with the rights granted by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The website reads, “To address free speech concerns of sign regulation, this model ordinance exempts personal expression signs from permit requirements. Personal expression signs are defined in the ordinance as ‘an on premises sign that expresses an opinion, interest, position, or other non-commercial message.’” Specifically, the site examines the components of signage regulation on private property. “Personal expression signs are permitted on any private property, provided they do not exceed three square feet in size, and are non-illuminated.”  

Montgomery County’s planning website also mentions a few Supreme Court cases that have dealt with sign ordinances. An example the site references is City of Ladue v. Gilleo, in which an ordinance that prohibited an individual’s political expression was ruled invalid. While the Supreme Court emphasizes the importance of First Amendment rights, they also factor in the need of oversight with signs. 

“While signs are a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has held that they are subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions,” The county’s website said. 

As the extent of sign regulation is up to debate, Winegar and Gottschalk believe the Greene County commissioners have legal power to enforce restrictions on the vulgar language of various signs.

“There are many communities across this state that have sign ordinances. It’s not unheard of,” Wingar said. “We are saying that, by allowing those signs to be there, we’re saying that this is acceptable, we’re okay with this, and that’s not the impression that I want people to take away from a county that I’ve lived in my whole life.”

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