City attorney on sign complaints: Tough to legally challenge right to free speech

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    City Attorney Corky Reynolds addressed the Crookston City Council this week in response to what he said have been several complaints made to local law enforcement and city hall about the displaying of various “signs, flags and banners” on properties in town.

    Although Reynolds’ presentation and the ensuing discussion didn’t get more specific than referring to election and/or political campaign signs, the presumption is that some signs still lingering from the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden prevailed over Donald Trump are spurring the complaints.

    In a nutshell, Reynolds said, there’s not much that can be done, at least when it comes to forcing the signs’ removal because the complainant has deemed them inappropriate or offensive.

    “The bottom line is, if you have to read a sign” to determine if it’s inappropriate or offensive, he explained, “then it’s probably not going to be regulated. …Even words that may be interpreted as vulgar or obscene can’t necessarily be addressed legally.”

    The City has sign-related regulations on the books, Reynolds continued, but the ordinances deal with things like how signs are grouped, situated and displayed, as well as their location, number, size, type, illumination and other physical characteristics. The ordinance can potentially come into play if a sign(s) creates a traffic hazard, diminishes property values, threatens public health or creates what would be deemed a negative aesthetic.

    “They come into controversy when they display messages some are not comfortable with,” Reynolds said. But, he noted, both the state and federal supreme courts have ruled that “signs can convey messages not everyone desires or finds acceptable. …A sign ordinance that restricts free speech is unconstitutional.”

    The State of Minnesota has a statute dealing with election/campaign signs, he continued, in regard to when they can go – 46 days prior to an election – and when they should come down – 10 days after an election. “But there’s no real sanction on when they go up or come down,” Reynolds noted. Cities have the option to approve their own local ordinance specific to when election and campaign signs can go up and when they need to come down, he added, but the City of Crookston has no such ordinance on the books.

    Reynolds said he personally as well as Crookston Police Chief Paul Biermaier have followed up on sign complaints and have visited with property owners to see if the matter can be “abated.”

    Despite the legal limitations, each case is decided on its own, Reynolds said, adding that if people have complaints on signs in town, they should bring them to City Administrator Amy Finch and she will refer them to his office or the CPD to be investigated.