In the busy weeks leading up to primary and general elections, political lawn signs are a constant throughout the South Shore. While candidates rely on this marketing as a way to get their names out there and rally support, the zoning bylaws dictating the size, placement and longevity of these signs can vary widely from town to town, are rarely enforced and, some say, may be unconstitutional.
Among seven South Shore towns, five different lengths of time allowed for signs are outlined in the respective bylaws.
Norwell allows signs for 60 days before an election, Weymouth permits signs 35 days in advance of voting, Braintree, Marshfield and Scituate would like signs up no earlier than 30 days before an election, Hanover specifies three weeks and Hingham’s by-law stipulate two weeks.
Of South Shore towns, Marshfield’s by-laws are the most involved. Candidates or support groups need to obtain a permit from the building department, along with a $10 fee and a security deposit of $50, which is refunded “upon timely removal of the signs and verification of the Enforcement Officer.”
In addition to being the only town to require a fee or a deposit, Marshfield also requires campaigns to provide a list with the locations of signs and the names of the homeowners, which candidates say they are expected to update weekly.
Cohasset’s guidelines say, “although there are no regulations, it is encouraged that political signs be installed no more than two weeks prior to the election.” The town previously did have a policy in place officially limiting the time to two weeks and charging a $10 building permit fee per 10 signs posted. In 1999 a Scituate man, who was campaigning for a gubernatorial candidate, challenged the policy questioning how Cohasset would charge money for someone to exercise his or her freedom of speech.
The town’s bylaw at the time addressed every type of sign except political signs; in 2004 Cohasset Town Meeting retooled the bylaw to include them. Cohasset now regulates the size of political signs, but not the length of time they can be posted.
Stephen Gill, an independent candidate for State Senate, said he believes bylaws regulating political signs is unconstitutional.
“It’s a violation of the first amendment right to free speech,” he said. “When we’re talking about free speech, what we’re really talking about is political speech, because that’s really what the founding fathers had in mind.”
Another Independent, Joe Armstrong, who was then in the race for the 4th Plymouth District State Representative seat, sent letters to the town administrators in Marshfield and Scituate in August requesting relief from sign bylaws, citing the 2015 Supreme Court decision in the case Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert as justification.
That Supreme Court decision prohibited towns from imposing content-based restrictions on signs unless “a compelling government interest” could be demonstrated.
Robert Galvin, town counsel for Marshfield and Norwell, said that while towns are likely to amend by-laws as a result of the Gilbert decision, some independent candidates misunderstood town by-laws, thinking that only those whose names would appear on ballots during the primary could display signs.
The bylaw allows signs to be displayed for 30 days before any election; this includes all political signs, Galvin said, noting that write-in candidates for those primaries would also be excluded if that were the case.
“Particularly in Marshfield, it seems as if people either thought or were told that they couldn’t have political signs up if their name wasn’t on the ballot,” Galvin said. “Certainly that is not a litmus test for us under our by-law, so we do not have such a rule nor do we apply that.”
Armstrong withdrew from the race prior to the Sept. 4 Republican and Democratic primaries and endorsed fellow independent Nathaniel Powell, though signs for both candidates could be seen lining town streets.
Following the primary, only candidates who would not be featured on the November ballot were asked to remove their signs.
The existing by-laws, Galvin said, are lawful and were all reviewed by the state attorney general’s office, but towns have relaxed some enforcement.
“Right now, as far as I’m concerned, the by-laws are lawful, and they haven’t been challenged,” he said. “I do think that we have eased up already on some of the rules, because as applied and as written, there has been some misunderstanding.”
The Gilbert decision affects content-based restrictions; Galvin said the by-law in Marshfield is “content-neutral.”
“The town doesn’t favor one candidate or one political message over another,” he said. “It remains neutral. We have a by-law that does not regulate the content and language of signs.”
Signs are prohibited in towns from being placed on public property, and Galvin said because road layouts often extend further than the paved surface, signs are inadvertently placed on public property and have to be removed.
“The layout of the town streets might only be paved 26 feet wide, but the layout may be 50 feet wide,” he said.
In Marshfield, Building Commissioner Jim Folkard said his office was accused on social media of stealing signs during the recent primary season, which he said is untrue, and that only signs on public property were removed.
“It’s the people that are running themselves,” he said. “They take them and they throw them in the back of our pickup truck, next to the dumpster. They’re doing it to themselves. We won’t go on private property. If it’s on town property, we’ll call the person who is running and ask them to remove it.”
Gill further criticized Marshfield’s by-law as unconstitutional because of the $10 permit fee required to display temporary signs, and said signs supporting his candidacy were removed in August because he’d yet to submit his permit fee and deposit.
“They have the town employees, who are being paid, pulling down signs,” Gill said. “We have paid town employees subverting people’s first amendment rights because you haven’t paid your $10 illegal tax.”
Galvin said the permit fee is “completely appropriate.”
“It’s a nominal fee,” he said. “I don’t view that as an impediment, and no one has ever claimed it to be an impediment at that rate. You could put up hundreds of signs for $10 or you could put up one sign for $10, it’s up to the candidate. ”
In one South Shore town, these type of discussions and misunderstandings have been avoided almost completely: not by town by-laws, but by town tradition.
Braintree allow voters to display signs for up to 30 days prior to an election, but few, if any, do.
“People never wanted to see the political signs,” Town Clerk James Casey said of Braintree’s voters last year. “In the old days it was always frowned upon. It’s still that way. It’s an old tradition.”
Casey, a resident of Braintree since 1975, said he is unable to recall a candidate who used a large number of political signs in his over 40 years in Braintree.
While some candidates may put up signs in key traffic locations 30 days before an election, Casey said normally you have to “hunt around” for any signs before an election in town.
For towns less steeped in tradition around political signs, though, by-laws will continue to be examined and, following the Gilbert decision, potentially loosened.
“It’s likely that we will propose changes to reflect actual practice in the town,” Galvin said of Marshfield.
“It would be to liberalize the by-law, any changes, in order to review its consistency with Reed v. Gilbert. If there is ever an assertion that anything we’re doing needs to be looked at, we look at it a little bit more carefully.”
Mary Ford and Bradford Randall contributed to this report.
Follow James Kukstis on Twitter at @MarinerJamesK.