On The Front Lines
Victory: Court Dismisses Charges Against Mich. Farmer Fined for Displaying Political Billboards Critical of Obama on 40-Acre Private Property
GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. — In response to First Amendment arguments raised by The Rutherford Institute, a state district court has dismissed charges against a Michigan cattle farmer who was cited and fined for displaying political banners critical of the Obama administration on a farming truck parked on his private 40-acre lot. The banners mounted by Vern Verduin on his farm truck proclaim “Marxism/Socialism = Hunger and Poverty” and “Obama’s ‘Mission Accomplished,’ 8% Unemployment, 16 Trillion Debt.” In censuring Verduin, Gaines Township officials alleged that his political banners violate the township’s sign ordinance, which allows only business-related signs on vehicles, restricts the size to no more than 20 square feet, and limits the time period for displaying political signs from 45 days before an election to ten days past an election. Upon review, Judge Steven Servaas of the 63rd District Court found the sign ordinance for the Gaines Township to be unconstitutional, agreeing with The Rutherford Institute’s arguments that the ordinance violated the First Amendment because it treated commercial speech and advertising more favorably than political speech.
“Americans have a clear First Amendment right to freedom of political expression, whether that ‘expression’ takes place at a podium, on a t-shirt, a billboard, a picket sign, or on the side of a farm truck parked on private property as in the case of Vern Verduin,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Thankfully, the courts recognized that the right to freely express one’s political views, especially the right to freely speak our minds to and about those who represent us, is one of the key ingredients in a democracy such as ours.”
In September 2012, Gaines Township officials ordered Vern Verduin, who owns and operates a 40-acre cattle farm, to take down two political banners displayed on one of his farming trucks, which was parked on his private property. The banners proclaimed, “Marxism/Socialism = Hunger and Poverty” and “Obama’s ‘Mission Accomplished,’ 8% Unemployment, 16 Trillion Debt.” City officials justified their demand by pointing to the city’s sign ordinance, which permits business-related signs on vehicles, restricts political signs of more than 20 square feet, and limits the time period for displaying political signs to a time spanning 45 days before an election until ten days past an election.
Standing firm in his free speech rights and insisting that politics is a year-round discussion, Verduin continued to display the political banners and signs on his private property. At the same time, the cattle farmer called on city officials to amend the ordinance in order to better respect the rights of individuals wishing to exercise their free speech rights on private property by displaying political signs. City officials refused to accommodate Verduin’s request, and in January 2013 cited him for violating the sign ordinance, which levies a $50 fine. In coming to Verduin’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys challenged the Township’s actions and asserted its ordinance as a clear violation of Verduin’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Affiliate attorney Howard van den Heuvel assisted The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Vern Verduin.