Judge Upholds Michigan Farmer’s Free-Speech Rights

by Patrick Brennan

Today in Kent County, Mich., Judge Steven Servaas was taken aback by a packed room leaping to its feet to applaud his dismissing a zoning-ordinance violation against a cattle farmer, Vern Verduin.

Verduin had famously been issued a citation, which he subsequently challenged, for displaying political messages on the side of two tractor trailers in his cattle pasture. The judge deemed the Gaines Township statute, which limits the size of political signs more strictly than commercial vehicles or billboards, unconstitutional, and found him not responsible for the ticket. The decision doesn’t strike down the ordinance, but it does render it unlikely to be enforced, and, says Verduin’s lawyer, Howard Van Den Heuvel, it “sends a message to all the townships: Make your ordinances as understandable and as open to free political speech as possible.”

Images credit: Emily Zodalz, MLive.com

Van Den Heuvel told National Review Online after the hearing today, “a real pitched battle with the township” that took almost three hours, that the defense laid out a variety of arguments, but emphasized that the county’s statude was invalid because it privileged commercial over political speech. They argued that the measure, and Verduin’s ticket, amounts to “selective enforcement,” since even the government’s attorney couldn’t explain to the judge what the ordinance exactly meant. Van Den Heuvel explains that, at one point, “they were saying to the judge, you can’t understand this.” The township’s lawyer at one point admitted to the judge that Meijer’s trucks could have as large a message as they liked displayed on the side of their vehicles, but Verduin’s trailers, in order to be legal, would have to be kept out of sight, like in a barn.

Speaking of the trucks, confident that his rights would be upheld, Verduin had actually moved both of them into clear view of the nearby freeway (since the trailers are actually mobile hay lofts for his beef cattle, they hadn’t always both been visible).

Van Den Heuvel was joined in the defense by an amicus curiae brief filed by the ACLU, which argued that the statute, by more strictly regulating political speech than commercial advertisements, amounted to “content-based regulation.” Miriam Ackerman of the ACLU explained after the decision, “They have to be treated equally and if they can’t, you can’t have stricter limits on political speech than commercial speech.”

The township has the right to appeal over the next 21 days, but Van Den Heuvel says, “I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I expect they’ll rewrite the statute,” as should other authorities who may be running afoul of the Constitution by privileging some types of speech over political expression.

Verduin’s lawyer emphasized that the farmer himself probably wouldn’t have pursued the case without the enthusiastic support he received, calling this “a decisive victory for freedom in an era in which people are almost afraid to speak out.”

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