Thursday, August 09, 2007
James Ewinger, Plain Dealer Reporter (Cleveland, OH)
Kent – A soft-spoken teacher posted the words “Impeach Bush” in a public garden, and Kent police cast him as an outlaw.
Today Kevin Egler is fighting that in Kent Municipal Court, and the case is emerging as a free-speech issue of interest well beyond the boundaries of placid Portage County.
Police ticketed Egler for unlawfully advertising in a public place because he put up a free-standing sign near the intersection of Haymarket Parkway and Willow and Main streets.
Egler said the officer who cited him July 25 asked: “Why don’t you put the signs in your own yard?” Egler said his response was that he’s a taxpayer and views the public space very much as his yard.
At 45, Egler is too young to have experienced the heyday of anti-war activity in Kent. He was only 8 when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State University students during a campus protest on May 4, 1970. He went to the university a decade later, putting out an underground newspaper and acquiring an accounting degree.
Egler and about a dozen friends and associates have placed hundreds of anti-war messages around Ohio and neighboring states over the past 10 months. He said the effort is fueled by the notion that President Bush’s military response after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was both illegal and immoral.
The ticket in Kent represents the first serious legal challenge to the campaign, Egler said. (He said he was ticketed for littering in Columbus after a sign he placed on a bridge blew over.)
Egler said that when he was stopped in Kent, he asked the police officer how his sign differed from Realtors posting signs on public property saying “This way to the house for sale.” He said the officer asked, “You don’t know the difference?” but never explained what it might be.
Columbus attorney Bob Fitrakis, Egler’s lawyer, said there is a difference: The real estate sign is commercial speech, and Egler’s sign is political. Commercial messages do not have anywhere near the legal protections that political speech does, he said.
Fitrakis does extensive legal work on First Amendment issues and is the publisher of the nationally recognized online publication freepress.org. He said this is the first Ohio case of its kind that he has heard of, because most prosecutions for political signs occur when someone defaces a building with paint or graffiti, but not a free-standing, easily removable sign. Until now.
But Ohio politicians – including judges running for re-election – get a great deal of latitude when it comes to posting their campaign signs, and Fitrakis said he is not aware of any instance in which a mainstream politician has been hunted down and prosecuted for the act.
Kent Safety Director William Lillich said similar tickets have been issued there, but he is not sure whether they involved commercial or political messages. He said candidates have been contacted and told to move inappropriately placed campaign signs.
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