Concerned about public safety, the county commissioners are looking to introduce an ordinance banning signs at public hearings.
Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said Monday that the panel had asked county attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson to draft such an ordinance for their consideration.
The ban has been prompted by a recent public hearing on the county's mineral mining plan, in which residents showed up carrying signs that commissioners contended blocked visibility and could have posed safety threats.
"There were a lot of signs there," Gouge said. "That was a
surprise to us.
"It's one thing to hold a sign up and another thing to have it on a stake."
Both Gouge and Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy said the stakes could have accidentally poked or injured somebody. While the crowd at the hearing was orderly, they said such signs could lead to trouble during heated exchanges among residents.
Lippy, citing First Amendment concerns, said there was little the panel could do to prohibit signs outside public hearings, but the commissioners believed banning them inside was an appropriate and allowable measure.
"Inside, there are other factors," Lippy said. "Signs could become harmful. We are all unanimous in agreeing to ban signs inside."
Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while the commissioners could probably pass such an ordinance, it was an inappropriate way to handle their concerns.
"I think it's the wrong approach," he said. "You should deal with a problem in the least restrictive way possible. If there's noise, deal with the noise. If it's vision, deal with vision."
He said signs are prohibited inside the State House and during legislative committee hearings.
"Unless there is a serious problem, (public hearings) are the place to encourage speech of all kinds," he said.
Linda Cunfer, chair of New Windsor Community Action Project, a rural planning and citizens group, said the commissioners "are overreacting."
"Technically, they may be able to ban signs at hearingsbut there are a lot of other ways of dealing with that," she said. "If a sign is too big, tell someone to put it down. If someone's beingdisruptive, ask the person to leave."
She asked whether the commissioners would ban T-shirts and buttons next.