A house at 188 Wrentham Street has come under scrutiny by neighbors and councilmen in the Town of Ulster for its display of large vulgar political signs which use profanity to target Democrats including President Joseph Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who left office this week.
The matter came before the Ulster Town Board during a meeting held on Thursday, August 5 with two residents — one by letter, one in person — lodging complaints about signs and banners on the property owned by Spencer Wilson. The signs are as depicted the accompanying photo.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has defended such signs in the past as protected speech.
But longtime resident Cathy Boyce, a Wrentham Street neighbor, said the banners have impinged on her quality of life as well as anyone who uses the street since former President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid to President Biden last November.
“I have been a resident of the Town of Ulster for almost 40 years, and having lived all that time on Wrentham Street, it has been a very nice and friendly neighborhood with a diversity of residents who have taken pride in their homes and have lived respectfully with one another,” Boyce said. “I raised my children to be patient respectful of others who don’t necessarily have the same belief systems that they have. But for the nine months since the last election, I have struggled to live up to that standard myself. I tried to be patient hoping that the situation would eventually go away, but my tolerance level has been steadily decreasing. And that patience is now exhausted.”
Boyce added that while she supports free speech, she and her husband feel “like hostages in our own home,” and added that there is a school bus stop within view of the banners.
“I keep the blinds closed on that side of our house all the time,” Boyce said. “I can no longer sit on the front porch or walk to our mailbox without being assaulted by profanity laced signs that tell me to F-myself, if I voted for the current president, or calling our vice-president the C-word, the most awful name you could call a woman…Then there’s the banner that shows our president with a Hitler mustache and a swastika on his forehead, which if placed on religious buildings would be considered a hate crime. But I have to see it every day. I can no longer take my granddaughter to my front porch, where she used to love to play with my bunny statues, because I don’t know how to answer her question(s)…My family and friends are embarrassed to come to our house.”
A letter from another neighbor, Jessica Van Kleeck, expressed similar concerns.
“I used to regularly bike and walk past this home with my children,” wrote Van Kleeck. “I no longer do this because of these signs. As a parent I can’t imagine my children asking me what (the word describing Harris) even means. My children are 7 and 9. This home is located in a residential area where children and families frequently drive by.”
Both Boyce and Van Kleeck asked town officials to look into amending the town code to address the use of flags on residential property with profanity, and councilmen said Town Attorney Jason Kovacs was looking into the matter.
Wilson could not be reached for comment.
Similar case ‘was uncomplicated’
But if a recent similar case in Roselle Park, New Jersey is anything to go by, requiring Wilson to remove the signs may be an uphill battle. Andrea Dick-Dilascio, who lives in a Roselle Park house owned by her mother Patricia Dilascio, was ultimately allowed to keep banners similar to those on the property at 188 Wrentham by Superior Court Judge John M. Deitch citing First Amendment rights after initially facing municipal fines of $250 each day she refused to take them down. Dick-Dilascio was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey.
“The First Amendment exists specifically to make sure people can express strong opinions on political issues — or any other matter — without fear of punishment by the government,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha in a statement after the late July ruling. “[The] decision confirms that our position was correct: Roselle Park had no grounds to issue fines for a political sign and the town’s use of its obscenity ordinance infringed upon fundamental rights protected by the First Amendment. It was an uncomplicated case.”
Ulster Town Supervisor James E. Quigley, III was not in attendance at the August 5 meeting, but Deputy Supervisor John Morrow said he hoped the Town could resolve the matter. “We’re going to have to come up with a creative way to address it because I agree with the young lady here that, uh, it’s not appropriate and it’s disgusting,” said Morrow.
Councilman Rocco Secreto agreed. “If you go down Wrentham Street…and see this place, this house, it’s disgusting,” Secreto said.
Councilmen asked that Boyce and other neighbors be patient while they attempt to determine whether there is a legal way of getting Wilson to remove the signs. Boyce said that she’s waited nine months with no resolution to the issue and said she’d come before the Town Board because she and other neighbors were uncomfortable bringing it up with Wilson themselves.
“I’ve been waiting nine months for him to come to his senses, but we’ve had trouble with him in the past,” Boyce said. “I’m afraid to go over and talk to him. I’ve had a fairly good relationship with him where I can talk to him, but I’m afraid to bring it up because…I’m just afraid of him. And there’s a lot of people in the neighborhood that feel the same way.”
Town Police Chief Kyle Berardi said he wasn’t certain whether a visit from the police would help either. “Our past experiences of engaging with him have not been great,” Berardi said.