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Legal battle over free speech brewing on a West Michigan cattle farm

Julia Henshaw

“I can summarize it in common language; what’s more important, egg McMuffins or political speech?”  attorney Howard Van Den Heuvel said.

His client, cattle farmer Vernon Verduin, posted two huge signs critical of President Obama and socialism back in September. One of the signs reads “Marxism/Socialism=Poverty & Hunger,” the other “Obama’s ‘mission accomplished’ 8% unemployment 16 trillion debt.”

Van Den Heuvel says the township cited Verduin after two anonymous complaints. Gaines Township ordinance has a 20-square-foot limit on the size of “political signs” and a 32-square-foot limit on “commercial signs.”

The signs are on the side of two semi-trailers on his property used to cart around hay for the cows that dot the pasture. One can easily see the cows and the signs from a nearby freeway.

On Monday the American Civil Liberties Union filed a legal brief supporting the farmer.

“While the constitution also protects commercial speech, political speech is really the most protected form of speech and so Gaines Township has it backwards,” ACLU attorney Miriam Auckerman said, “They give more protection to commercial speech than they do to political speech.”

Crystal Morgan represents Gaines Township. She says the message on the sign is not at issue, just the size of it.

“The message that was displayed on Mr. Verduin’s sign is allowed in the township. It’s allowed through the township, but it is subject to the 20 square foot restriction,” Morgan said, “Signs pose unique challenges and unique problems for local governments.”

She points to case law allowing local governments to restrict signage to protect the look of the community and the safety of drivers who may get distracted by large signs. You can read more in a brief filedwith the court in Kent County here.

“They are meant to draw your attention. They force you to some extent to read a message, which may take your eyes away from the road for a longer time period,” Morgan said.

Van Den Heuvel doesn’t buy that.

“If somebody rolls through with a sign on the side of their truck, on the side of their semi-truck, why is that any different from what Mr. Verduin is doing, putting a message, ideological or business, on the side of his truck? I mean, what's the difference really?” Van Den Heuvel said. He pointed out there's electronic and regular billboards nearby on the freeway that are larger than Verduin's signs.

“I mean if you wanted to put a 500 by 500 foot sign out that was way out of proportion, way larger than any other sign out there, that may be an issue,” he added.

A hearing in the case is set for Thursday.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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