Daniel Greenberg has posted political signs in the yard of his Sylvania home numerous times, so he was stunned when a city zoning official came to his door last week to tell him he had to remove his Obama/Biden sign or face a criminal citation.
The city's sign ordinance prohibits any yard signs from being posted more than 70 days before an event -- in this case, the general election in November, Zoning Administrator Robert Oberly told him. The penalty for violating the rule: up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
"My first thought was, I don't want to have any trouble. I didn't want to create any issues," Mr. Greenberg said, explaining that he initially took the sign down. "When I read the zoning ordinance and saw how restrictive it is on all things -- whether it's a sign for your church or a sign for political reasons -- it upset me that it was so restrictive."
He promptly put the sign back in his yard and soon found a warning from the city posted on his front door: Take the sign down within 48 hours or else.
On Wednesday, Mr. Greenberg filed a complaint in U.S. District Court contending Sylvania's sign ordinance violates his First Amendment right to free speech. He is asking the court to declare the zoning code unconstitutional, to prohibit its enforcement, and to award unspecified damages and attorney fees.
Lawyer Dale Emch, who filed the action, said Sylvania's law places an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on political signs and therefore on free speech.
"The ordinance looks just like numerous other ordinances around the country that have been found to be unconstitutional," Mr. Emch said.
Sylvania City Law Director James Moan disagreed. "The code was carefully drafted to address those concerns," he said, explaining that the key point is that the city's law is intentionally "content neutral."
"It doesn't matter whether its a political sign, a yard sign, a garage sale sign … " Mr. Moan said. "It's to give a reasonable time frame to publish or make people aware of an upcoming event."
Mr. Emch said filing the suit Wednesday was not intended to coincide with Mitt Romney's visit to northwest Ohio. He said it speaks to the point his client is trying to make.
"Dan wants to communicate with his neighbors that he supports President Obama and Vice President Biden, and a sign is out there when Governor Romney is in town campaigning," he said. "There are other people I'm sure in Sylvania who want to show their support for Governor Romney. They ought to be allowed to engage in that political speech outside of this arbitrary 70-day window that Sylvania has allowed them to engage in this type of speech."
The two sides agreed in a conference call Wednesday with Judge Jeffrey Helmick to allow the Obama sign to remain in place without sanctions to Mr. Greenberg at least until Monday, when a hearing is scheduled with U.S. District Judge David Katz.
Mr. Moan said the requirement that yard signs be limited to 70 days before an event and seven days afterward was part of a completely rewritten sign ordinance adopted by Sylvania City Council in 2006. He said he was unaware of any residents being cited for violating it. Those who have violated it were warned and then took the signs down until the appropriate time, he said.
Mr. Greenberg, an English teacher at Sylvania Southview High School and vice president of the Sylvania Education Association, said he has had signs in his yard for school levies and political issues such as state Issue 2 -- a campaign he worked on last year. He said a neighbor's front yard recently displayed a Romney sign.
"I'm glad to see it," Mr. Greenberg said. "I'm glad to see people feeling strong enough to put a sign in their front yard and exercise their freedom of speech."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.