Yard signs encouraging public participation at a controversial community development meeting in Harris County were confiscated from yards just one day after a widespread distribution effort by activists, but citizens say the county employees who collected the signs did so to silence opposition and that the county employees who collected the signs work for the department pushing the initiative the signs call on people to oppose.
The Harris County Community Development Department, charged with policies and enforcement for matters of public health, safety, and welfare, is considering a high-density housing project in conflict with the county’s two acre minimum lot size requirement for housing.
The initiative has prompted citizens to print yard signs encouraging attendance at the upcoming meetings, but the day after a very public campaign began to distribute the signs, the county began picking the signs up off of private property, citing “complaints.”
News of the sign removal spread like wildfire on social media last week and prompted citizens to call the Harris County Community Development Office. Citizens in the ‘Save Harris County GA’ Facebook group shared that Director Brian Williams told citizens that signs were removed by the county because they were “personal and not political,” which gave the county the authority to remove the signs from private property.
Citizens voiced concerns over the county’s use of employees to collect political signs in yards when the county is facing a $1.3 million tax increase, which is set to be voted on Tuesday night, and the removal from private property as the signs were not in the right of way.
The county sign ordinance governs standard yard signs only to the extent that residential properties are excluded from permit requirements and Ordinance 2.11.2 expressly permits yard signs – regardless of type – on private property.
Harris County has seemingly opened itself up to the potential for a lawsuit. Beyond the county ordinances, courts across the country have held that yard signs on private property are protected speech under the First Amendment.
- The U.S. Supreme Court held in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, AZ (2015) that regulating signs based on content is unconstitutional.
- The Georgia Court of Appeals has upheld protections of yard signs of all varieties in Maher v. Avondale Estates (2008).
- In 1996, a U.S. District Judge ruled that ordinances restricting the display of political signs deprives candidates of their First Amendment rights of free speech. It specifically cited preferential treatment for commercial signs over political signs – in that real estate signs, construction signs, and others are not subject to limitation, which is not constitutional.
- At least six lawsuits against local governments in Pennsylvania alone have been decided in favor of the citizen and/or property owner, not the sign limitations.
- And the Georgia Municipal Association lists practices carried out haphazardly by Harris County on their ‘Don’t’ list for signs.
Williams was not in the office Tuesday and did not respond to requests for comment, but county officials confirmed that citizens are permitted to pick up signs that were previously collected at the office on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The county keeps collected signs for roughly a week before taking them to the landfill.