Farmer vs Township Over 1st Amendment Rights

Gaines Charter Township is located in Kent County, Michigan, about 13 miles due south Grand Rapids.  Covering 36 square miles, the township has 3 unincorporated communities and around 25,000 people.  A considerable portion of the township is composed of farms and small cattle ranches.

Vern Verduin has a 40 acre cattle ranch in Gaines Township and he’s never been any trouble to anyone until recently.  Vern doesn’t like the way the country is being run.  He sees the Obama administration as being what it is, a socialist government.  So he decided to exercise his First Amendment rights of free speech when he placed two farming trailers in the pasture on his land.

On one trailer, he placed a large banner that read:

 “Marxism/Socialism = Hunger and Poverty”

On the other trailer, he placed a second banner reading:

“Obama’s ‘Mission Accomplished,’ 8% Unemployment, 16 Trillion Debt”

His banners were visible from the nearby highway.  Vern says that he’s had people stop and thank him for the banners.  There have been people who were from other countries that did not have any freedom of speech that thanked him and hugged him for his messages.

The signs weren’t hurting anyone and they were on his own property, but they didn’t set too well with the township leaders who told Vern they were a violation of the sign codes and that he had to take them down.  Their ordinance read that political signs could be no larger than 20 square feet and only displayed 45 days prior to an election and 10 days after an election.

Vern looked up the sign ordinances and discovered that other non-political signs could be up to 30 square feet and remain up indefinitely.  This rankled his feathers and he dug his spurs in, ready for the fight, when he refused to remove the two banners.

The township dudes weren’t backing down either, so they fined Vern $50 for violating the township’s sign ordinance.   It wasn’t the money but the principle that Vern decided to fight for.  Fortunately, the Rutherford Institute came to bat for Vern and represented him in state district court last week.

John W. Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute commented on the case saying:

“Americans have a clear First Amendment right to freedom of political expression, whether that ‘expression’ takes place at a podium, on a t-shirt, a billboard, a picket sign, or on the side of a farm truck parked on private property as in the case of Vern Verduin.  By denying this farmer the right to freely express his political views on his own property, no less, city officials have essentially done away with one of the key ingredients in a democracy such as ours, which is the right to freely speak our minds to and about those who represent us. It is our hope the courts will recognize and rectify this wrong.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been driving along highways and have seen huge billboards off in someone’s field advertising fireworks or adult XXX bookstores and no one seems to care.  I’ve also seen barns painted with huge advertisements on their sides.  But let one lone cattle rancher put up a banner, not a sign, but a banner on the sides of his trailers that condemn President Obama and here comes the government telling him he can’t do that.

If Vern is forced by the courts to take down the banners, I would then hand paint the same message on the side of the trailer.  It wouldn’t be a banner nor would it be a sign.  How many tractor trailers do you see on the highway with some sort of wording, logo or image painted on it?  His trailers would be no different than others, except the message painted on their sides.  I wonder what the township sign lords would do then?