We folks in the newspaper business tend to be pretty staunch proponents of free speech. All the same, in the matter of the Town of Bethlehem's sign code debate, we are forced to weigh in on the side of prudence.
The town recently reined in a package of updates to the zoning code in order to review its policy on signs — specifically, whether they should be allowed on town property. We'd advise town leaders present and future to think long and hard about this issue and the consequences of loosening these rules.
The sign code is 14 sections long, some of which have up to 17 subsections, most of them existing for very good public safety reasons as well as to keep Bethlehem looking classy. But what we're interested in at the present moment is one tidbit of that code: “No sign, other than an official traffic sign, shall be erected within the right-of-way of any public street or highway.”
Some have argued that bars signs from groups advertising worthy events like fundraisers or bake sales, and that's true. We certainly feel the many worthy community groups in this town should have access to avenues to advertise their events and good works, which is why we devote a page of this paper to community announcements every week.
We also feel public property (including the lawn of Town Hall) should be kept from becoming a sideshow. While the sign law might keep signs informing of fundraisers and community events off of town property, it also bars the public display of hateful speech, political rabble rousing and business advertisements. We submit it would be difficult, if not impossible, to rewrite the code to allow only “worthy” causes signage, not to mention unlawful.
The law holds offensive speech to be free speech, which is why folks are legally allowed to display racist or hateful signage on their own properties. They are thankfully barred from splaying those messages all over town.