Milton resident claims the town violated her right to ‘free speech’

MILTON — A Milton resident claims the town violated her free speech rights when ordering the removal of four alleged political signs earlier this year.

Homeowner Penny J. Nickerson, a school teacher, was told that signs stating “Love Trumps Hate” and “Women’s Rights = Human Rights” on her property, among others, were prohibited by code except within 90 days before and 14 days after a contested election or referendum.

Thus, she is suing the Town of Milton in Chancery Court in an attempt “to vindicate her right to express her opinions on issues of national importance by erecting and maintaining signs in the front yard of her home,” according to an action filed on Monday.

According to papers filed by the American Civil Liberties Foundation on her behalf, Ms. Nickerson put the signs up after the presidential election from Nov. 9 to mid-February of this year. They were placed in front of her home and the sidewalk in the 400 block of Union Street.

“Milton cannot restrict the message on a sign because someone made an arbitrary decision that the message is ‘political,’ insisted Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware executive director.

The Town of Milton says this sign on a resident’s property violates code due to its political nature. (Submitted photo/ACLU of Delaware)

“The right to speak freely is most important in controversial and turbulent times. Ms. Nickerson has as much right to put a sign on her lawn saying ‘Love Trumps Hate’ as she does to put up a sign that says ‘House for Sale.’ “

On March 7, Ms. Nickerson received a letter from the Town of Milton indicating that the sign regulation was ennforceable and should be heeded, according to the suit.

She claimed a code enforcement officer said a fine could be levied if she failed to do so.

While the town permits residents to display other signs and messages throughout the year, Ms. Nickerson alleges that “political” matters are not allowed. Citing case law, the plaintiff believes the town’s regulation is unconstitutional.

The action noted other categories of signage that the town permits, including:

• Bulletin boards and similar announcement signs for churches and other nonprofit institutions, provided that they do not exceed 32 square in gross area and are located at least five feet from the property line.

• Professional and home occupation identification signs.

• Real estate signs, such as “for sale” and “to let” signs, in R-1 Residential Use Districts, provided that they do not exceed six square feet in area.
• “Contractor signs” while new construction work in ongoing, provided that they do not exceed 16 square feet in area.

• “Announcement signs stating the future use of a building enterprise, provided that it does not exceed 32 square feet.

• Memorial signs or tablets, provided that they are constructed of certain materials.

• Occupational signs denoting the name and profession of an occupant in a commercial building provided that they do not exceed 4 1/2square feet in area.

Ms. Nickerson claims the town uses its definition of political signs “to impose discriminatory retrictions on signs considered to convey political messages, explicitly excludes any ‘legally permitted outdoor advertising sign.’ “

The action seeks to disallow the town from “preventing (Ms. Dickerson) from expressing her views and opinions by displaying signs on her property.” along with compensatory damages and costs, awarding nominal charges expenses and counel fees, along with whatever else the Court determines.

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