Hundreds of political signs spark debate about free speech, state law

Political signs telling people to vote for or against issues and candidates are a common sight along roadways this time of year, but a decades-old state law bans posting any kind of signs in public right-of-ways.

With the Nov. 5 election less than two weeks away, political signs are posted all over the Miami Valley — and in some cases are standing on property owned by the public and maintained by local governments.

Phillip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission, said there are no exceptions to the state law, which clearly states signs of any kind are not allowed to be in public right-of-ways or affixed to poles or signs in public spaces.

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But enforcing the law can be tricky for municipalities and other governing bodies, he said.

“If the highway department removes one, they better remove all of them. They tend to let them go,” Richter said.

A hotly contested school board race has led to hundreds of political signs adorning ditches and the sides of roads in Sugarcreek Twp. That has led to complaints from residents and a special trustees meeting set for Thursday.

Trustees will receive legal advice from Greene County Assistant Prosecutor Elizabeth Ellis on whether to permit the signs.

Campaign signs against two incumbent school board candidates state “Drain the swamp.” Township Administrator Barry Tiffany said those have sparked the most concerns from residents.

“The quantity of the signs this year is extensive,” Tiffany said. “The content seems to be what pushes a lot of people.”

Tiffany said signs in right-of-ways were never a problem until this year. He said they never took action in the past to remove signs because “we don’t want to get in the middle of a political fight.”

Enforcing the ban on signs in public right-of-ways fairly can be difficult for townships, according to Matt DeTemple, executive director of the Ohio Township Association.

“Enforcement could be a challenge, depending on how many miles of roads. Some have 50 miles of roads and some have 400 miles of roads,” DeTemple said. “That’s a challenge, but clearly they have the authority to do it.”

Of the 1,308 townships in the state, about 700 have local zoning ordinances and many have specific rules on signage in public right-of-ways, DeTemple said.

“I think the rational is first and foremost — safety,” DeTemple said. “Townships have an obligation to make right-of-ways free of obstructions.”

John Stafford, who is responsible for the “Drain the swamp” signs, said this is not about political signs in right-of-ways but about free speech. Those who support the incumbent school board candidates don’t like the message and want to censor it, he said.

“Political signs in the public right of way have been a tradition in Sugarcreek for the last 50 years. They go up and down throughout the township every election cycle,” Stafford said.

While there are signs posted near roadways for and against school board candidates in Sugarcreek Twp., other signs in the same space advertise fundraising efforts, garage sales and basketball sign-ups.

Residents Jason Laveck and Doug Wade spoke about the issue.

Laveck said the “Drain the Swamp” signs initially confused people, thinking the signs were for the candidates when they were actually against them.

“It looks kind of junky and trashy to have hundreds of signs in a row on the road,” Laveck said. “There’s also the question of there being signs that are in poor taste … I don’t believe that’s right or that those should be up there. I haven’t seen anything like that in the area before so It was kind of a shock to the community.”

Wade said he’d like to see a compromise and have a space designated for posting signs of all sorts.

“It’s a tricky thing because you have to obey the law. If they don’t, they could be fined,” Wade said.

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The city of Beavercreek has a law that echoes the state ban. City Manager Pete Landrum said he personally has not received any complaints about signs in right-of-ways this election season, but city workers have picked up signs that were in violation.

Jeff McGrath, Beavercreek’s planning and development director, said the city has a “very detailed permit application” that provides areas to post signs where they otherwise would not be allowed.

“Our code enforcement officer sent an email to all the candidates reminding them of our rules and regulations,” McGrath said. “This election has been better than most in terms of the limited number of complaints and the time having to be spent on enforcement.”



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