Groton, N.Y. — A federal judge has ruled against a town in Tompkins County that sought to force a resident to remove signs with swastikas posted on his property.
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John A. Beck, of the town of Groton, won the lawsuit in a federal court ruling issued on April 1.
Judge David Hurd said Groton’s attempts to have the signs removed under a land use code amounted to a violation of Beck’s free speech rights.
“The Town has selectively enforced this ordinance against Beck in an unconstitutional manner that has interfered with his First Amendment right to free speech and caused him to incur monetary damages,” Hurd wrote.
“…There is evidence that the selective treatment occurred under circumstances suggesting an intent to inhibit or punish Beck’s exercise of his right to free speech, and with malicious or bad faith.”
Hurd ruled that Groton was prohibited from issuing citations or enforcing a part of its land use code against Beck on the signs, which were erected along Route 222 and along Champlin Road.
“The Town is further enjoined from requesting or requiring Beck to paint over or alter any part of the permissible signs,” Hurd said.
The federal judge also ordered Groton to pay Beck $1,300 in compensation for the cost of defending himself in court, for applying for a variance for the signs, for traveling to and from court hearings and for purchasing disposable cameras to capture the signs.
One sign said that Groton town officials should be imprisoned. Some messages also attacked President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Cornell President David Skorton and Cornell’s reportedly inhumane treatment of animals for research.
Feud begins in local court
The backstory for the dispute between Groton and Beck dates back at least to 2009, when “Beck began erecting large signs on his property” along Route 222 in Groton, according to court documents.
Gary Coats, the town’s code enforcement officer, met with Beck and asked him to remove the signs that violated the town’s “section 316.7 limits” — or one of its ordinances. Beck refused.
On June 10, 2010, Coats issued “Notice of Violation—Order to Remedy” to get Beck to remove the signs. Beck was then ordered to court, but when he arrived for his court date he was told the violation charge had been dismissed, according to the judge’s summary of facts.
Here’s where it gets a little complicated. Beck launched a federal lawsuit against Groton, claiming his constitutional rights had been violated. Meanwhile, the town of Groton filed a separate complaint against Beck in the Supreme Court of Tompkins County, “seeking to enjoin him from displaying his signs,” according to the judge.
Tompkins Judge Robert Mulvey apparently agreed with the town and “ordered Beck to bring his property into compliance,” according to the judge’s order.
Mulvey directed Beck to remove all signs that exceeded the town’s 50-square-foot rule. Beck removed the signs.
Town goes to the police
The story may have ended there, a minor little footnote. But at some point, Beck got a legal document that he “mistakenly believed” meant that he won the federal case. He re-posted the signs, which caused Coats — the Groton town officer — to make a criminal mischief complaint to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department.
Coats complained about the swastikas on Beck’s signs. (The court’s summary isn’t exactly clear when the swastikas were first drawn on the signs.) Coats told the sheriff’s officer “that he thought ‘the person who did it is targeting him’ and noted the ongoing litigation between him and Beck,” according to court records.
“In fact, one of the signs read ‘GARY COATS BELONGS IN PRISON’ and had two large swastikas on it,” records state.
The officer and Coats talked, and the officer said he would simply ask Beck to paint over the swastikas. Coats agreed with the plan.
Beck files an appeal
Beck, however, said he wouldn’t remove the signs. Then he went to the town’s board of zoning appeals and applied for a sign permit and variance, or exemption from the town code.
Beck noted that someone named Robert Fouts had won variances for three large signs on his property. The town official responded that Fouts’ property is a “working farm” and therefore different.
The appeals board sided with the town over Beck. In March 2014, the chair of the town’s zoning appeals board said that the proposed signs “would not be aesthetically appealing and would have an adverse effect on the character of the neighborhood,” according to the federal court ruling.
Beck also argued, and the federal judge agreed, that there was at least the appearance of the conflict of appeals on the zoning board. Robert Fouts, who won variances for signs on his property, is the son of the chair of the town’s board of zoning appeals.
Judge’s free speech findings
The judge was not persuaded by the town’s claims in the federal suit.
“The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the importance of a private citizen’s use of signs to communicate his or her views,” starts the beginning of Judge Hurd’s order.
The town, Hurd notes, made the argument that “section 316.7 is facially content-neutral” — in other words, that the law regulating the signs is not discriminatory.
But the fact that the law is not itself discriminatory does not mean that it has been applied constitutionally. “(Beck) has presented sufficient credible evidence to show he was treated differently than his neighbor,” the judge says.
Judge Hurd noted that Coats “unilaterally determined” that the Fouts’ property’s signs were exempt. Hurd also rejected what he essentially said amounted to backpedaling on the town zoning officer’s part.
The judge writes:
At trial, Coats denied the Sheriff’s officer’s account of this incident, claiming he never felt threatened or targeted and did not ask the officer to encourage Beck to paint over the signs.
This testimony is simply not credible. Coats had been embroiled in ongoing state and federal litigation with Beck regarding his signs, he passed Beck’s property at least twice daily, and he observed the large signs that mentioned him by name, asserted that he belonged in prison, and contained large swastikas.
Ultimately, the judge concluded, the town violated Beck’s free speech. “Beck has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the Town selectively enforced section 316.7 of the Land Use and Development Code in violation of his right to equal protection of the laws,” he writes, “and in such a way as to interfere with his right to free speech.”