When Dennis Lawrence of La Crosse put up a white sign reading simply “Impeach,” he didn’t think he’d be hearing from the city’s buildings and inspections department.
“I wasn’t expecting any kind of response other than to just express my opinion of the immoral, ignorant buffoon in our president’s office,” Lawrence said.
Instead, Lawrence received two notices that it had to be removed before the orders were rescinded in a letter Lawrence received Jan. 26.
The 5-foot-by-3-foot sign went up outside Lawrence’s West Avenue home last summer, about six months after President Donald Trump took office.
“After it was up for a couple weeks, I got a letter saying that the sign was in violation of city ordinance and I needed to take it down,” Lawrence said.
The letter, dated July 11, 2017, informed him that the sign was too large to be placed in his yard. It needed to be about 3 square feet shorter to meet city ordinance.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take it down to 12 square feet and put it back up,’” he said.
He did exactly that, which prompted a second order to take the sign down, saying it was still too large.
“I didn’t go along with that,” Lawrence said.
Instead, Lawrence brought the case to a lawyer he knows, who recommended he contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
“They were right on top of it right away. I just was impressed with it,” Lawrence said.
His case was assigned to ACLU staff attorney Asma Kadri, who drafted a letter to La Crosse city attorney Stephen Matty, accusing the city of acting improperly and violating Lawrence’s constitutional right to free speech through a sign ordinance that had different rules based on the contents of a sign.
The ordinance as written singles out political and campaign signs, which Kadri contended violated city residents’ civil liberties.
“We just sort of made our position clear that the sign was constitutionally protected and the city was improperly imposing an ordinance,” Kadri said.
The political message of the sign didn’t factor into the order to remove it, according to city officials. It wasn’t even clear to Matty.
“It didn’t say who it wanted to be impeached,” Matty said.
While impeachment is often associated with the presidency, it isn’t always directed toward the person in the Oval Office.
“We never asked the question, because it, quite frankly, didn’t matter,” the city attorney said.
At issue was the size — a fact both Matty and Lawrence agreed upon.
According to the city’s legal department, the size of a typical yard sign, such as a for-sale sign, is limited to two-square-feet and political signs have more freedom to be larger.
“The code we have grants more rights for political speech than any other kind of speech,” Matty said.
However, in light of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits regulating signs based on what they say, the city rescinded the order to remove the sign.
“I was within my rights as a citizen to display the sign,” Lawrence said.
That ruling had already prompted changes to the city’s sign ordinance.
“We’ve been reviewing our sign code since before the ACLU contacted us, so we can get that updated,” Matty said.
As is standard practice in the city’s legal department after court rulings and the creation of new laws, the city attorney began reviewing the ordinance in 2016 to make sure it was up to date.
“A lot of what we needed to do with our 79 pages of sign code is to try and pull out those content-based distinctions,” Matty said.
While it sounds simple enough, he said, the size of the ordinance, along with the four different Supreme Court justice opinions on the case, make it a difficult undertaking. The department is drafting changes that will eventually need to be approved by the La Crosse Common Council.
“It’s an important issue … We’re talking about the First Amendment. It’s the First Amendment for a reason. It’s the most important amendment. It’s not something you want to get wrong,” Matty said.
It’s not clear whether the sign will violate the ordinance after the changes are approved.
The city’s legal department also stressed that Lawrence’s case is not unique. Part of its function is to review situations and city ordinances and provide legal advice to city staff and elected officials.
“This kind of inquiry is something that happens all the time,” Matty said.
Despite the city rescinding the order, Lawrence did take the sign down late last fall to ease the fears of his father, Henry Lawrence, who was concerned supporters of the president would vandalize the home they share.
“I do plan on putting it back up as soon as the ground thaws up,” Lawrence said.