Sign Ordinance Debate Continues

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – At its August 6 meeting, the Hardwick Select Board continued its review of a proposed sign ordinance and received a progress update on the equity committee.

Both the ordinance and committee stem from local reactions to the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death, reached Hardwick in the form of signs and a weekly protest out front of the Gohl Block. The select board previously signed a “Town of Hardwick Equity for All Resolution” seeking to address injustice based on “race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression of sexual orientation, immigration status, religious or political affiliation.” Part of the resolution was the formation of an equity committee. Simultaneously, Town Manager Shaun Fielder was forced to adjudicate, with little guidance from existing town ordinances, whether protest signs on town property should be permitted. Select board member Shari Cornish tasked herself with providing a clearer, up-to-date sign ordinance to replace the three older ordinances.

A read-through of Cornish’s draft ordinance reflected suggestions from Town Attorney Bill Davies, Zoning Administrator Kristen Leahy, and others. Select board member Lucian Avery raised concerns that portions of language in the ordinance might not pass First Amendment muster. “I think,” he said, “talking about ‘hateful symbols and intolerance’… I think we can’t do that, we can’t make a judgment. We can’t say anything about the content of a sign unless it’s inciting violence.” Avery said that the board could be “setting ourselves up by policing content,” adding he wasn’t convinced the town should not ban signs on town property.

Select board Vice Chair Elizabeth Dow disagreed with Avery that the language was problematic. She said Cornish’s rendition exemplified the tenets of the Equity For All Resolution and the board’s commitment that the resolution go beyond mere words on paper. She noted the document had passed legal muster and contextualized the discussion in historical terms, referencing a Supreme Court decision from 1919.

“The concept of free speech had no clear limits until 1917-1918, and when [in 1919 then-Associate-Justice of the Supreme Court] Oliver Wendell Holmes [Jr.] said ‘you may not yell fire in a crowded theater.’ Hate speech in this country has been allowed, legal, and even government-supported … the whole notion of hate speech has not been adjudicated … we could go ahead and do this [ordinance]. We’re not the only group, we’re going to bear the brunt of every lawsuit about hate speech because this is being done all over the country. It will be challenged, it will go to court, and if it’s not upheld then we can take this out. By leaving it in, we are stating our intention to discourage [hate speech].”

Avery asked, “Do we want to be on that cutting edge?”

Galloway-Kane asked Avery if the inclusion of the paragraph might be redundant, as the ordinance as written allows town agents the discretion to remove signs. She suggested it might be enough to refer to the Equity For All Resolution.

Cornish said she did not have further time to commit to additional edits to the ordinance. Avery volunteered to take over.

Avery said he found the task of addressing concerns with the equity committee’s lack of diversity more time-consuming than expected. He added “it’s still in progress,” and suggested a modest budget could be helpful toward funding training, discussion groups, and expert guidance.