Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

April 15, 1992

"Welcome to Carroll County: We value your (oral) opinions."

The Carroll County Commissioners haven't posted such greetings at the county outskirts yet, but they may have to since they are in apparent agreement that people who attend their meetings shouldn't be allowed to carry signs.

The seed for this proposal to limit expression was sown at a recent turbulent meeting over mineral mining regulations that pitted mining companies and their employees against other residents and environmental interests. The opposing camps, each carrying signs trumpeting their respective positions, apparently were a bit feisty and rude.

Unaccustomed to such nastiness, the commissioners ordered the county attorney to draft legislation that would ban anyone from carrying a sign into their chambers. The commissioners will decide what to do after they receive the draft.

Commissioners Julia W. Gouge, Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy reasoned that signs degrade public meetings, that demonstrative lobbying often obliterates the message being delivered anyway, and that posters mounted on boards can pose safety hazards to boot.

First, public meetings can't be degraded; their whole purpose is to foster and field a free range of debate, which sometimes gets over-emotional. Government hearings are not always so neat and orderly, or meant to be. If the commissioners cringe at signs today, how will they react to a verbal outburst at a meeting a month from now: gags and masking tape distributed at the entrance?

Second, if a group tramples on its own message in its frenzy, that's the group's problem. The commissioners need not tolerate disorderly conduct, although sometimes simple reminders of decorum during the heat of battle can be far more effective in reaching the desired effect than attempting to outlaw rude behavior.

Lastly, fears that people bearing signs on posts constitute a safety threat seem overblown. As the commissioners amply illustrate, some ideas can be dangerous even without the presence of a 2-by-4.

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