The Corner

Free Speech under Fire in Michigan Cattle Field

Is it illegal to paint a political message on the side of a makeshift hay loft and leave it in your cattle pasture? If you live in Gaines Township, Mich., apparently, yes. Vern Verduin did that, painting “Marxism/Socialism = Poverty & hunger” and “Obama’s ‘mission accomplished.’ 8% unemployment. 16 trillion debt” on the side of two tractor trailers on his 40-acre farm.

For doing so, Verduin has now landed in court, having run afoul of a local zoning rule that prohibits political signs larger than 20 square-feet in size. The sides of the trailers in which Verduin keeps hay for his beef cattle measure more than that, displaying his message to passersby on the M-6 freeway his field abuts.

But the township allows for commercial signs up to 32 square-feet, leading Verduin’s lawyer to quip that the township apparently considers advertising “an Egg McMuffin more important than political speech.” The attorney, Howard Van Den Heuvel, argues that this is a clear violation of Verduin’s First Amendment rights: “The Constitution requires ‘strict scrutiny’ if you want to limit free speech,” and the regulation has to occur in the “least obtrusive way possible.” By tightly regulating what kind of political sign Verduin can place on his own land, Van Den Heuvel believes, the township invaded the wide space usually given to free speech. “This is an inherent constitutional violation,” he says.

Van Den Heuvel explains to National Review Online that Gaines Township’s zoning enforcement is “complaint driven,” and an anonymous complaint prompted Verduin’s first warning. Following a named complaint, Verduin received a citation and a fine for having broken the zoning ordinance. Because such violations are rarely reported, Van Den Heuvel suggests that it could have been a private citizen’s attempt at “content-based censorship” of the views on Verduin’s sign. Further, Verduin was surprised to receive a warning based on the anonymous complaint; he’s served 34 years as a volunteer firefighter, and his lawyer explains that in his town-government experience, anonymous complaints only get “the circular-file treatment.”

Last Friday, Verduin appeared in court to contest the violation. The district judge seemed skeptical of the rule, but granted a request by the township to have ten more days to assemble evidence. Van Den Heuvel is quite optimistic that the judge will rule in their favor at the final April 4 hearing, saying, “I think he understands what we’re saying,” and giving his client “excellent chances” in court.

The judge, Steven Servaas, seemed sympathetic at the first hearing, expressing serious concerns over the township’s expansive definition of what speech it can regulate. “My own feeling,” he said, “is that you have to be pretty careful about what you let the government stop you from saying.” He got the township’s attorney to admit that a similarly sized sign with as anodyne a message as “I Love America” would be an unacceptable political display on private land, even if it weren’t visible from a road. The government attorney further explained that “there is really no provision under the zoning ordinance that would allow a 300-square-foot sign that says the message that it says, or a commercial one, other than a billboard.” Van Den Heuvel, however, believes there’s one clearly more important statute that gives Verduin the right to speak on his own property: “The Constitution is clear. What do we value highest? We want a vigorous political dialogue, no matter what side you’re on.”

If found “not responsible” — like getting off of a traffic ticket — Verduin won’t have to pay the small fine and can keep his sign, but more important, the township will probably give up trying to enforce the rule anywhere. It would take a federal court to strike down the statute, but a judge’s ruling here could render it practically invalid. “There’s only one judge in the district,” Van Den Heuvel explains,” and while “every ticket is unique,” the township would expect future violators to be found not responsible, too.

Van Den Heuvel got involved in the case as a participating attorney for the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based foundation with lawyers all over the country who protect citizens in civil-liberties cases. He’s recently heard from the ACLU, which is considering filing a brief on behalf of Verduin’s right to free speech in a cattle field. This isn’t the first time Van Den Heuvel’s defended First Amendment rights in a rather malodorous environment: In 2002, he also worked on a case in which health regulators tried to force a group of Old Order Amish to install septic systems against their religious beliefs.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More