Town of Ulster can do little to restrict offensive signs

Ulster Town officials last week learned that they may be unable to do anything about a house at 188 Wrentham Street that came under scrutiny for its political signs which use profanity last summer. “They may be vulgar, but essentially courts have ruled that these are considered political speech, and political speech is given the highest protection under the first amendment,” said Town Attorney Jason Kovacs during a Town Board meeting on Thursday, November 4.

The matter first came before the 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 have included President Joe Biden with superimposed Nazi imagery, Vice-President Kamala Harris being called a slur for female genitals and one star-adorned banner simply reading “Fuck Biden and Fuck Harris and Fuck You Too.”

In August, 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.

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“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 and 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.

A recent similar case in Roselle Park, New Jersey indicated that requiring Wilson to remove the signs might 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 ExecutiveDirectorAmolSinha in a statement after the late July ruling. “Today’s 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.”

In a November 2 memo, Kovacs cited several other court cases, including a 1971 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Cohen v. California, in which the court reversed an appellate court decision to charge Paul Robert Cohen with the crime of disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft” in the corridors of a state courthouse.

The Supreme Court’s decision was 5-4, and in his dissenting opinion Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that wearing the jacket was not speech but conduct, calling it an “absurd and immature antic.”

Justice John Harlan voted in the majority, saying the word “fuck” was protected under the First Amendment, and that “…while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Kovacs said recent cases often refer back to Cohen v. California and rule in favor of those erecting political signs on their own property. “There’s been many cases across the country in the last couple of years regarding signs of this nature, directed at the current president and the former president, and various organizations have gotten involved,” Kovacs said. “The ACLU has gotten involved on behalf of property owners and nearly all the courts that have weighed on this issue have found in favor of the property owner. These signs while crude…fall under the protection of the First Amendment.”

Town Supervisor James E. Quigley, III suggested that the town look into zoning regulations which could potentially impact the size and location of political signs on private property.“The memo clearly says we don’t have a right to say anything about the content of the sign,” Quigley said. “I’m hoping we can get to the location of the sign not as a means of regulating free speech, but as to try to clean up the front yard.”

But Councilman Eric Kitchen said he was concerned about the impact the process might have on other members of the community.

“Not every sign is going to be rude and political, but yet you’re going to create a law that’s going to prohibit them,” Kitchen said. “Maybe someone wants to put up a sign of something positive.”

Town officials also cited ongoing issues with Wilson. In August, Town Police Chief Kyle Berardi said he wasn’t certain whether a visit from the police would help.
“Our past experiences of engaging with him have not been great,” Berardi said.

Wilson could not be reached for comment.

As for the Town of Ulster’s continued efforts to address Wilson’s signs, officials concluded last week that they and the community may not like them, but they may have to live with them.

“The Town Board does not condone the actions of Mr. Wilson,” Quigley said. “We do not support his position. But I think in conclusion we should respect his rights as American citizen under the Constitution of the United States. And as indicated by Mr. Kovacs, we are limited in our ability to address the concerns that have been raised by the neighbors to us.”

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