CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — A day after the ACLU of West Virginia wrote a letter to the City of Charles Town regarding a controversial Facebook post, the city released an updated statement.
“Thank you for the feedback regarding the recent post from city staff concerning the removal of temporary signs. Rest assured it is not our intent to violate any constitutional rights and we will do what is needed to ensure that doesn’t happen. We will proceed cautiously on this matter, including reviewing the city sign ordinance if necessary, and immediately suspend any enforcement of the ordinance related to such temporary signs until we can determine its legality. Once again, we thank you for your ongoing interest in this matter.” -City of Charles Town, Facebook on April 5, 2019
The controversy sparked after a post was made on March 29 on the City’s Facebook page asking residents to remove all anti- and pro-Rockwool signage (see below).
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — A Facebook post from a Jefferson County municipality has prompted a heated debate.
“Thanks for your interest and participation in the community debate regarding the city’s financing of the Route 9 sewer line. Now that city council and the building commission have voted on the matter, city staff respectfully requests that you remove any temporary signs (both pro- and anti-Rockwool) from your yard. A temporary political sign is only permitted in the city when an issue or a candidate’s name will appear on the ballot for an upcoming election. We encourage you to stay involved with community issues but you will need to find another way to express your views. Thanks again for your interest in this important community issue and for complying with this request.”
– The City of Charles Town, Facebook on March 29, 2019.
Since the post was published on Friday, March 29, it has gained the community’s attention with 121 comments as of Thursday. Charles Town City Manager Daryl Hennessy explained the city code MetroNews affiliate WEPM.
“There is a city code that basically speaks to how long a temporary sign can be placed in a yard. We just felt like it was time to enforce that now that the vote on the issue had been resolved, at least at the city council and building commission level. A sign advertising a candidate or an issue, that’s going to be on the ballot, can be up 60 days prior to the election. It needs to be taken down before 48 hours after the election.”
Hennessy is referring to the March 20 vote by the Charles Town Building Commission that approved bonds for a sewer line to serve the Rockwool insulation plant in Jefferson County. The plant’s construction has been at the center of ongoing controversy. Opponents are concerned about the wool insulation plant’s close proximity to three schools and potential environmental impact. Rockwool insists they have followed and passed all guidelines set by the West Virginia DEP and the EPA.
“The regulations we follow are set by the Federal Clean Air Act (shown below) and MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) standards. Both of these standards were developed and issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and set maximum permissible emissions for key substances.”
Comments on the City of Charles Town’s Facebook post include; “Signs are constitutionally protected speech”, “This is absurd put up more signs”, “Plaster your house with them” and several cite the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Also mentioned is a U.S. Supreme Court known as Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
In 2015, the Arizona town of Gilbert had a comprehensive code of rules for signs. Outdoor signs were were required to have a permit, with the exception of 23 categories of signs.
Included in those exemptions were those that were “ideological signs” or those “communicating a message or ideas”. Another category was listed as “political signs”. This includes “any temporary sign designed to influence the outcome of an election called by a public body”.
In the case involving Clyde Reed, a pastor who posted 17 signs for the Good News Church, the Town of Gilbert cited the church for failing to remove the signs within the stated time limit. The District Court ruled in favor of the Town of Gilbert. The Supreme Court later overturned this, declaring that placing a limit on the signs was a content-based regulation of free speech.
“Under this standard of scrutiny, the town’s content-based regulations are unconstitutional because they are not narrowly tailored to further any compelling governmental interest.
For these reasons and others set forth in our opinion, we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.”
-Reed v. Town of Gilbert, opinion announcement by Justice Clarence Thomas
Hennessy said the City of Charles Town does not believe their situation is a violation of rights, but they are open to consideration.
“We don’t think so. I mean at the end of the day if we determine that it does (violate rights) we’ll certainly need to go back and change our ordinance. We’re agnostic in respect to the message. All we are doing is monitoring the time, placement, duration of the sign. Not the content on the sign.”
When questioned if anti- or pro- Rockwool signs could be defined as “temporary political signs”, as in the city’s Facebook post, Hennessy admitted that it is a blurred line. The Rockwool insulation plant, or components of its construction, have not been on a ballot.
“Well, I think you might be able to make the case that maybe it’s not a political sign. People have been pushing back to me a little bit whether or not it is. But again, I think we felt that it was regarding an issue and we felt that it fell into this category and we’re treating it as such.”
Late Friday evening, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of West Virginia sent a letter to Hennessy and Charles Town City Council.
“A restriction requiring residents to remove from their yards ‘any temporary signs (both pro- and anti- Rockwool)’ is in violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits the enactment of laws abridging the freedom of speech.”
The City must repeal this unconstitutional ordinance and inform residents immediately via Facebook and other applicable public means that the City no longer intends to penalize individuals for displaying Rockwool-related signs.”
-Letter from ACLU WV to the City of Charles Town
Rockwool is on track to open in 2020. It is expected to bring around 150 jobs to Jefferson County.