Town of Niagara resident Charles Lagreca has been asked to get a permit for an “Impeach Trump” sign on his lawn. On Tuesday, July 17, the town ruled that Lagreca would be allowed to keep his sign up. First Amendment attorney Barry Covert spoke to WIVB about the legality of the town asking for a permit and what people should know if they want to put signs in their lawns. For the full story, watch the video below and visit the WIVB website.
Expressive speech cannot be regulated
WIVB asked Mr. Covert what constitutes a political sign. He responded that, regardless of the content of the sign, “the town does not get to decide” whether it can go up. “Any First Amendment speech, any expression that you want to engage in, whether it’s political, whether you like a candidate, [do] not like a candidate, whether you want to talk about a town or municipality and what they’re doing—anything that’s deemed expressive speech cannot be regulated by the town,” he explained.
Mr. Covert told WIVB that “every time a township” attempts to decide what signs can go up in residents’ yards “they lose in court.” Residents have to take the town to court in order to challenge the town’s decision but, “under what’s called a Civil Rights Action, a 1983 Action, [the town must] pay your attorney fees if you do take them to court,” Mr. Covert explained. He went on to say that this means that the Town of Niagara could be liable for a “significant” amount of money and that this is why other townships in the area who have lost these lawsuits in the past have changed their statutes.
When asked whether it is the building inspector’s responsibility to make the determination of what constitutes a political sign, Mr. Covert responded that the United States Supreme Court, as well as other courts, have said “in crystal clear language” that any one person in a township or municipality cannot decide “what is political speech, what is a sign, what is appropriate.”
Regulations for yard signs
Mr. Covert explained that, when people are putting up signs in their yards, “they should find out what reasonable regulations apply to any sign that can go anywhere in that municipality” and that residents “basically have the right to do the same types of dimensions [and] setbacks from the road.” Some common regulations that Mr. Covert cited are not causing a danger to traffic or drivers by having the sign too close to the road or blocking views. Other than that, Mr. Covert told WIVB that “municipalities have very little ability to regulate any political speech at all. As long as you’re within reason,” he explained, “you’re going to be able to win at court.”
Mr. Covert told WIVB that Lagreca seems to be acting within reason in this case. Being within reason means that “you can’t be a danger to the community or the area.” Mr. Covert explained that “there’s no allegation that [Lagreca’s sign] was causing a danger to traffic or anything along those lines” and that, because of this, “the township here cannot regulate speech.”
About Barry N. Covert
Mr. Covert is a senior partner in Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria’s Criminal Defense Trials and Appeals Practice Area. He is known for his aggressive representation of clients in the areas of New York State and federal criminal trials and appeals; driving while intoxicated; constitutional law, including First Amendment, civil rights actions, and federal False Claims Act; defending against allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud, research misconduct and fraud, plagiarism, and fabrication of evidence; and professional licensing defense. Mr. Covert frequently provides legal analysis for WGRZ and other media outlets.