City right with Anton Park message sign rules

THE UNIVERSAL RIGHTS GUARANTEED in the U.S. Constitution are not unlimited or unfettered.

For instance, free speech is guaranteed but, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it, that right “would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

While subsequent rulings have walked back from the restrictions the Court pronounced in that 1919 decision, narrow limits on absolute free speech have been maintained.

The Plymouth City Council has imposed its own limits on one small area of expression, the message board located in Anton Park on Eastern Avenue at the entrance to downtown Plymouth.

While the sign is located in a city park, it has traditionally been operated and maintained by non-profit civic organizations as a public service to the city. It was the Jaycees who performed that service for many years and the Eagles Club now does that duty.

The intent of the sign was to advertise news and announcements of public events and activities, encouraging support and attendance of those, which was a laudable and worthwhile effort.

For the most part, it has been pretty much a laissez faire situation that has worked well for everyone involved.

But from time to time, the message board has been utilized for messages that have gone beyond the original intent of general public information and have raised objections from some in the community.

One example recently was a message providing a website address for a Republican presidential candidate.

There is no objection to such a message – the objection is to its placement on a signboard in a city-owned park.

Citizens have a right to expect their local government to refrain from taking sides in partisan electoral contests and not to appear to support any particular candidate or party in any elections.

The message on the Anton Park sign board made it appear city government was doing just that and led the city to adopt some common sense rules for what messages can and can not be placed on the board.

Allowed will be advertisements for a charity or community-wide event, public service announcements or recognition of individuals for accomplishments or milestones. Prohibited are profanity or obscenity; support of or opposition to any religious belief; endorsement of or opposition to any political candidate, party or ideology; or commercial advertisement for goods or services.

These are logical and common sense rules that were understood, but unstated, in the past. The council has simply taken the necessary step of codifying them.

The rules apply only to the message board on city property and to no other sign in the city, which the city – by law and the Constitution – can not do.

“We’re self-regulating the content of our own sign,” City Administrator Brian Yerges explained to the council when it considered the resolution providing guidance for the sign. “This only applies to the city-owned sign board. It has nothing to do with any other sign in the city of Plymouth.”

His explanation was correct, and the council’s action was correct.

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