Since the issue of hanging signs in the public right of way has become a matter of great debate around town, I thought it was worth clearing-up any confusion people might have regarding the City’s interest in signs. I hate to take the controversy out of this issue, but the City has no interest in what the sign says — just where the sign was put.
Despite how the issue has been reported in the media, the City’s involvement is not nearly as exciting as a philosophically or politically motivated denial of free speech case. This began, and has remained, a routine action to ask for compliance to a law that’s been on the books for years that prohibits advertising or hanging signs in the public right of way. Admittedly, the individual in question has chosen to use this as a way to make national news by framing it as a freedom of speech issue, but honestly we have no issue with his message, only where he puts it.
Laws prohibiting signs in the public right of way are common everywhere, and like most cities, Kent does not aggressively go after violators of the law. So indeed, if you drove around Kent, you’re likely to find garage sale signs, weight loss signs, and maybe other political signs at various locations along the public right of way. Like most cities, we don’t have Police stake out street corners looking for sign violators, and frankly we don’t have the resources to spend trying to track down who put the sign up. So, like most cities, we have found that it’s usually just easier to pull crews off of street repair duties and remove the signs at particularly bad locations or when we receive complaints. And when they do come in to pull the signs, they don’t discriminate based on what they say, they pull them all.
That being said there are occassions where we actually happen to catch people in the act of hanging signs up in the right of way. If we see someone hanging these signs, we ask them to stop because they are technically breaking the law. Usually, the Police advise the person of the law, and the person apologies for not knowing the law, and takes the sign down without any trouble and no citation is issued. However, there have been occassions where the person refused to take the sign back down, and as a result, the officer cites the person. These cases get handed over to our Law Director and as part of his routine court process he offers the person to pay a $25 fine and the case will be over.
In the recent case that has caught the media’s attention, the officer happened to see the person in the act of hanging the sign so he asked him to stop. Despite the officer’s explanation of the law, the person refused to cooperate so the officer made the citation. As standard practice in these cases, the Law Director offered the $25 fine. Again, the person refused, and at that point he (or his attorney) appears to have started calling the national media reporting a violation of his first amendment rights.
As this thing grew with all the media coverage, the Law Director asked the person to just agree to not hang any more signs in the public right of way in Kent, and we’ll drop the whole thing. So far, he’s refused that as well.
So regardless of what his sign said, the City has followed the same procedure in this case as we have used in others. We treat Grandma’s garage sale the same as political signs, so as I said, this has never been a matter of what the person was saying, only where he put it. The difference here seems to be the interest of the individual cited to use the City’s routine action as a means to draw media attention to his political issue. Seriously, we said we’d forget about it if he just agreed to not put up any more signs on the Kent right of way, so that hardly seems to be an oppressive request on our part, yet he keeps it going by refusing our offer.
The thing is, if Council desires, we can certainly change the law to allow signs on the right of way but at this point it is the law so in the end, if the person won’t come around to what I think are reasonable requests, we have to honor what’s on the books. And to be honest, I still think it’s a good law because if the right of way was officially “open” for signs, not only would we have a lot of junk hanging all over town, we’d also have to be willing to accept racial slurs, profanity, and other potentially offensive signs because to deny those signs would in fact be a denial of free speech. I’m thinking those are pretty good reasons to keep the law in place.
I hope this at least gives you a slightly different perspective than what’s been reported in the media.