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Our Opinion: Regulating speech on signs is a bad idea

Brainerd's ordinance should be amended to allow people to speak their minds through yard signs.

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When it comes to regulating signs people place in their yards, the city of Brainerd would be wise to do less.

Much less.

The city of Brainerd recently sent letters to 71 residents asking them to take down non-commercial speech signs, which per current city ordinance the city restricts outside of election seasons.

Understandably, several people who received the letters complained. And rightly so. At best, the city’s ordinance, as written, looks like an overreach of government and an unnecessary use of staff time. At worst, it’s a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

We realize the ordinance was crafted and put into effect with the best of intentions, but the only thing such a rule accomplishes is causing anger and making the city look bad.

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Mayor Dave Badeaux said it best, as reported in the March 3 Brainerd Dispatch.

“This is the exact stuff that people complain about,” he said. “This is the exact stuff that we spend so much time trying not to do because we want citizens to understand that we’re not there to badger them. We’re there to help. We’re there to be a part of the process, not a hindrance.”

Fortunately, the sign ordinance is being sent to the city’s planning and zoning commission for review and will not be enforced in the meantime. We’re hoping a more pragmatic approach ultimately prevails.

In fairness to city staff that sent the notices to residents, they were following the letter of the ordinance as it is written and were responding to specific complaints about signs. They were doing their job, but now it’s time for the commission and council to make city staffers’ jobs easier by amending the sign ordinance

Many signs are benign, but we also understand a few signs or flags in people’s yards might be considered offensive or crude to some, or philosophically or politically opposite of what others might believe. The First Amendment doesn’t protect only the speech we agree with, it protects all speech — especially unpopular speech. That means the government cannot punish us for what we say — or write on a sign.

The impetus is on us, as residents, to choose to listen to or ignore what is written on the signs. Or, better yet, perhaps the language on some signs can be used as a teaching moment to help others understand a different point of view.

Related Topics: BRAINERD DISPATCH
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