LF needs to enforce sign ordinance uniformly — now

The city of Little Falls needs to enforce its sign ordinance uniformly. It should have done so all along, and, even though it has not done so and has public sentiment on its side, it should not wait until it gets around to amending its ordinance.

Last October, a letter to the editor appeared in the Record complaining that a hay wagon displaying Republican campaign signs was in violation of the city sign ordinance. The ordinance says that political campaign signs espousing a particular candidate or referendum position, can only be displayed from 90 days before the election until five days after. Al Nouis, owner of Little Falls Motors, removed it, he said, after receiving a phone call from acting Co-City Administrator Jerry Lochner. Nouis said local Republicans were using the wagon to advertise a fundraiser, but removed it because, “It wasn’t worth the hassle.”

At about that same time, Robin Hensel put up more than a dozen politically oriented signs in her yard. The signs mostly followed the theme of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, among other causes.

As we read the city code, she violated the law in two ways. First, the city code says that single-family dwellings are allowed without a permit a limit of one sign that shall not exceed two square feet per side. She violated both the size and the quantity. Second, she could have posted more signs up to 8 square feet in size if she had obtained a conditional use permit, which costs $250, but she did not apply for one.

Lochner first called her to point out the violation, and when she did not comply, the city then sent her two letters, the first on Nov. 9, 2011, and the second on Nov. 28, ordering her to take down the signs. After the second letter, she complied.

In mid-January, however, Hensel was demonstrating in downtown Little Falls and noticed that a “We Support Our Troops” sign was hanging there — and, it turns out, has been for nearly 10 years without complaint in this pro-military community, ordered so by the City Council. Hensel asked why she had to comply with the law and the “Troops” sign didn’t. A firestorm of anger against her followed.

However, the city has no leg to stand on with this issue. Hensel said that in a phone conversation with Co-City Administrator Lori Kasella on Jan. 18, she requested that she be allowed to put her signs back up. The Constitution doesn’t allow cities to choose which views are worthy.

In the all-politics, all-the-time world that we have today, the city sign ordinance has not kept up. It needs to accommodate political views of all stripes at all times.

Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment expert who has litigated several sign ordinance cases, says a city can adopt reasonable standards, such as a limit of two signs of a political nature no more than, say, 8 square feet in residential areas. He also says a city can limit the time that a political campaign sign can be displayed, but not signs of a political nature that focus on an issue other than an election.

No freedoms are absolute, but certainly application of any laws must be uniform. The city should remove the “Troops” sign immediately only if it otherwise refuses to allow Nouis and Hensel to put their signs back up, if they wish, until the ordinance is amended. Anything else violates their constitutional rights — rights which apply to all of us, not just those with whom we agree.

The City Council has asked the Planning Commission to revise the ordinance. That will take time. How long should the city allow one political message — even one viewed by  most as basic patriotism — on sign-age while squelching others? Under the Constitution, not one second.