Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Freedom to Post "Crap"

Staff writer,  Peter Mucha at Philly.com is reporting on the local man who filed a lawsuit over a township ordinance on vulgarity.  Essentially, the David Kliss was protesting a Township sewer assessment and ran headlong into the Township's ban on "vulgar" language.

"A homeowner has filed suit against a Central Pennsylvania town for making him remove the word crap from two protest signs he posted in mid July.

They read: '$10,000 TO TAKE A CRAP.'

David Kliss of East Hanover Township displayed them because he was upset that a mandated sewer tie-in would cost him thousands of dollars, according to the suit, filed with the U.S. District Court in Scranton.

About a week later, the township's code-enforcement agency notified Kliss, who lives at 436 Pheasant Rd., that he was violating a zoning ordinance that 'No Loud, Vulgar, Indecent or Obscene Advertising matter shall be displayed in any manner.'  He also was warned the signs were illegally attached to trees on right-of-way property, and informed that he needed a zoning permit.  Kliss complied by attaching the signs to stakes on his lawn and covering the offending word with white paint.

He resisted the urge to use a synonym, such as dump, leaving the signs to read, '$10,000 TO TAKE A.'

Clearly, he didn't do so happily.

The suit contends that the ordinance fails to define vulgar, indecent and obscene, that the signs had no graphic images, and that the township was denying Kliss his constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, petitioning the government and due process.  Besides, the word crap just isn't that offensive, said Kliss' Kennett Square attorney, Aaron Martin.

'In my brief, I used an episode of Seinfeld from 1993, in which the word crap was used four times in 15 seconds, to demonstrate that our society does not view that word as unspeakable,' he said.  (The episode is 'The Old Man,' and Kramer and Newman are the utterers.)

'What's happened is that the township has used the obsenity ordinance to squelch political speech,'  Martin said.  Besides lifting the vocabulary restriction, the suit asks for unspecified damages and recovery of legal fees and other costs.

East Hanover Township is in Dauphin County, about a dozen miles east of Harrisburg.  'I don't think we're going to have any comment,' said township solicitor Scott Wyland, an attorney with Hawke McKeon & Sniscak in Harrisburg. 'The matter is under review.'"
Mr. Kliss has a winner with this lawsuit. 

East Hanover Township might want to look at the U.S. Constitution and possibly get a memorandum of law before enacting ordinances like this one on "vulgarity."  The ordinance is purely prior restraints on speech.  The township needs to move quickly and resolve this lawsuit if it wishes to cut their exposure for court costs and Mr. Kliss' attorneys' fees.

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