Judge dismisses case against Gaines Twp. farmer

6:12 PM, Apr 4, 2013   |    comments
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  • Gaines Township - March 22, 2013
  • Gaines Township - March 22, 2013
    
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  • GRAND RAPIDS TWP., Mich. (WZZM) -- A Kent County judge has ruled that the way a township enforced its sign ordinance is unconstitutional.

    The decision came early afternoon Thursday in Judge Steven Servaas' courtroom in Kent County's 63rd District Court. The case involves Gaines Township's attempt to make a cattle farmer remove signs on truck trailers saying: "Marxism/Socialism = Poverty & Hunger" and "Obama's 'Mission Accomplished.' 8% unemployment 16 Trillion Debt."

    The truck trailers are on his land, but aN ordinance says political signs cannot be larger than 20 square feet in size. Two residents complained and the township requested Vern Verduin take down the signs.

    But Judge Servaas ruled Verduin will be allowed to keep his signs. The decision came after more than three hours in the court room.

    That time wasn't spent arguing about the right to free speech;
    Instead, it focused on the signs' size and efforts to understand the township's ordinance.

    Even Judge Servaas' was left scratching his head. The judge says his parents spent a lot of money to put him through law school and even he has a hard time understanding the ordinance that farmer Verduin supposedly violated.

    "Anybody off the street of Gaines Township would have an awful hard time understanding this definition," he said.

    The ordinance limits political signs to 20 square feet.
    The signs on Verduin semi trailers are much larger.
    In court, the question became: Is this also a vehicle sign?
    No one could answer that.

    "It's not tailored enough," Verduin's attorney, Howard Van Den Heuvel said of the ordinance.

    Judge Servaas' says there is no "clear definition of wrong" in putting a political sign on a vehicle, or specific rules on size.

    Miriam Aukerman from the ACLU of Michigan says in that sense, Verduin's trucks are no different than Meijer's, which are used for advertising.

    "At the end of the day, even if he could have a lot of tiny signs on his big trailers, Meijer can have as big of sign as it wants on as many trailers as it wants. That's the content-based distinction, that's the part that's unconstitutional," said Aukerman.

    Gaines Township's attorney, Crystal Morgan argued that no matter where you park the vehicle, the sign has to be 20 square feet.

    Judge Servaas' says there's no doubt Verduin's signs surpass the 20 square feet rule. But he says the ordinance still lacks enough meaning, and declared it unconstitutional.

    That brought a smile to Verduin's face.

    "We made our point," Van Den Heuvel said. "I'm not looking to stick it in the township's face."

    Van Den Heuvel hopes this case will encourage other townships to review their ordinances to make them more clear, and possibly less restrictive.

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