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Political polarization is peaking online and in communities across the United States, with just weeks to go before the 2020 General Election. The division is clear on social media – take look at the comment section of a political post, if you dare – and also from increased reports of campaign yard-sign theft and vandalism.
Yard signs supporting President Donald Trump, former vice president Joe Biden, and other state and local candidates are all being targeted by those with opposing viewpoints.
However, while some might view taking down or defacing yard signs as an act of civil discourse or political activism, the law is clear on the issue: Theft or vandalism of political signs is a crime in all 50 states. Trespassing on private property is also a punishable offense in every state.
States take slightly different approaches to how they penalize theft and vandalism of political yard signs, but most states treat the conduct as a misdemeanor. Even though misdemeanors are minor offenses, they do carry serious consequences that can multiply based on the number of signs involved.
Research the misdemeanor laws in your state to find out the penalty that could apply. Misdemeanors often carry up to a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days or even a year in jail. In states like New York, if the property stolen or damaged was worth more than $1,000, the offender could be charged with a felony.
Criminal trespass, which refers to intentionally entering someone else's private property without their permission, is also often treated as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days or a year in jail.
Increased theft and vandalism of political signs has prompted some property owners to attempt to catch trespassers by installing cameras such as security cameras, smart video doorbells, or trail cams. The footage is being used to shame people online and also helps law enforcement track down offenders.
Being charged with any crime, including a misdemeanor, can negatively affect your life, so anyone charged with stealing or defacing political lawn signs should get advice from a criminal defense lawyer.
Avoiding criminal charges is a good reason not to steal or vandalize political yard signs. Another one is that doing so is stifling free speech.
The right of a property owner to post signs representing their political beliefs is one that is rooted in the First Amendment, which protects every citizen's right to freedom of expression.
It is believed that the first political yard sign in American politics dates back to John Quincy Adams' presidential run in 1824. The current wire-framed version of political lawn signs originated in the 1960s. However, the concept of political signage can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome.
While the digital age has changed many aspects of political campaigning (hello, Facebook), one thing that has not changed is the prevalent use of political yard signs.
In addition to campaign signs for specific candidates, many property owners now also put up signs supporting policies such as “Support Our Police" or social movements such as “Black Lives Matter" or more general statements of inclusivity.
Generally, yard signs have proven to be an easy and inexpensive way to participate in public debate, and the courts have recognized the protected form of expression as such.
Local laws determine when, where, and how election signs can be displayed. However, the regulations must be content-neutral and establish reasonable “time, place and manner" restrictions on free speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on government restriction on political signage in 1994. In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the Court unanimously held that a Missouri city's ordinance prohibiting signs at private residences was unconstitutional.
The Court ruled that residential yard signs are “a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important." The city's ordinance was struck down, and similar bans on political yard signs have been axed since then by lower court judges citing the landmark case.
When it comes to content-neutral, reasonable restrictions on lawn signs, local governments can require that the signs do not pose a public safety threat like obstructing the view or distracting motorists.
Additionally, many local governments have imposed reasonable restrictions on the size and shape of political signs, as well as a maximum number of signs each yard can display. Additionally:
In the case of property rentals, it can get more complicated. Whether a renter can post a political sign against the property owner's wishes or take down a political sign that the landlord has put up depends on facts including whether the renter has exclusive use of the yard, and if a clause in the rental agreement specifies whether political signs are prohibited, or other details on each party's rights.
If you think political signs have been put up in a way that violates the law, you should contact the local authorities and leave it up to them to remove the signs, if necessary.