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A bad sign

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In the town of Watertown, it’s perfectly fine to advertise specific details of a business or endorse certain candidates for elective office through the use of signs.

But it may violate the community’s zoning ordinance to display a sign describing shoddy home improvement work done by a contractor. Can someone please explain the logic behind that?

Robert J. Comenole has been contemplating this dilemma for the past few months. He was unhappy with work performed by a contractor at his father’s home in Watertown, and he put up an 8-by-6-foot sign on his front yard expressing his displeasure when he couldn’t come to terms with the individual.

But the town’s code enforcement officer told Mr. Comenole that the sign violated the zoning law. He took the sign down and sought a permit and then a variance to allow his sign to be displayed.

Mr. Comenole’s requests, however, were rejected by the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Town Council. He was told that on-premise signs can only display the wording and graphics of a business, its principal service or purpose, its address and its phone number.

This information did not jibe with what Mr. Comenole had seen at other residences throughout town. Political campaign signs are apparently OK to display. So are other signs that convey more than merely a business’s name, service, address and phone number.

In Thursday’s issue of the Watertown Daily Times, Mr. Comenole said that signs displaying messages such as “God bless America” and “We support our troops” are not addressed by the zoning ordinance. While Town Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett said those “are fine temporary signs” and that “Banners of that type aren’t permanently left out,” he acknowledged the ordinance has some gray areas — and it is here that town officials must correct their rules.

How the town decides if a particular sign is permitted or not is completely arbitrary, and this lends credence to the notion that the ordinance is unconstitutional. Governments cannot restrict personal expressions based on if they approve of the content or how troublesome the messages would be.

The town’s authority to regulate signs should be limited to the display’s potential to obstruct the view of pedestrians or motorists. But it’s not appropriate for the town to deny certain signs because people object to their messages.

For Mr. Comenole to publicly admonish a contractor for work performed is unwise, as it could lead to a lawsuit for defamation of character. Part of promoting the right of free expression is understanding when it’s best to keep our views to ourselves.

But the town of Watertown should not be making case-by-case decisions about which content is permissible to display and which is not. The courts have generally frowned on this practice, and officials shouldn’t invite legal action on this issue. Set parameters on how and where signs can be put up, not what they can say.

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