Sign overload? 'It's freedom of speech … you don't mess with that'

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FALMOUTH — “Sign, sign,” the lyric goes, “everywhere a sign.”

At least that’s what it seems like when candidates and political parties are placing campaign signs along local roadsides.

But in what is already an unusual election year, some towns are seeing atypical reactions to the signs.

Falmouth Police Lt. John Kilbride estimated his department has received between two and three dozen calls involving campaign signs. Besides the common complaints about placement, four people have been given summonses for allegedly stealing political signs or illegally removing them; all of the signs were in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“You generally don’t have this much activity around signs,” Kilbride said. “I can’t recall the last time we’ve charged people with stealing them, throwing them up in the air. It’s foolishness.”

Three of the four people summonsed were Falmouth women who were found with nearly 40 Trump signs. All were charged with theft by unauthorized taking or transfer. A Portland woman was found with seven signs, and charged with unlawful removal of a political sign.

One of the Falmouth women, Betta Stothart, 52, wrote an op-ed published Tuesday by the Washington Post to explain her actions. She said Trump’s boasts about women pushed her “over the edge.”

“We felt assaulted by the number of signs,” Stothart said. “The idea of ‘cleansing’ our streets seemed like the fastest way to restore balance and alleviate our election stress — at least, that night it did.”

Stothart said the thefts were not planned in advance.

In other instances, Kilbride said officers have advised people about the legality of tampering with political signs.

For example, Kilbride said police found a 14-year-old girl removing signs near the intersection of Depot Road and U.S. Route 1. He said the girl’s parents told her to take down the signs. Both the girl and her parents were given guidance about the rules against removing signs.

Kilbride said his department has also counseled business owners who have removed signs without knowing they were on public property.

“It’s freedom of speech and you don’t mess with that,” Kilbride said.

Under Maine law governing temporary signs, which was recently changed to conform to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, campaign signs bearing the same or similar message on public property have to be at least 30 feet apart and can be in place for only six weeks of a calendar year. Sign owners are also required to have their name and contact information on the signs.

Falmouth also has its own ordinance, but Community Development Director Amanda Stearns said the the town cannot enforce a local ordinance because it is superceded by the state law.

“We’re working on redrafting them, (and) that work is taking place now,” Stearns said. “During this election we have taken a position of non-enforcement.”

The experience in other towns is similar.

Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton said his officers have summonsed four people in three incidents, with charges ranging from theft by unauthorized taking or transfer, to unlawful removal of a political sign. He said the department has received the usual number of calls from people complaining about sign placement, but they usually don’t have to give out summonses.

“What is unusual is the stealing of signs and tearing signs down,” Moulton said. “I don’t recall having that before or at least to this volume.” 

One resident was allegedly found with 14 Trump signs. The other incidents, however, involved people from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Kentucky.

So far, however, Portland hasn’t had any unusual incidents.

“We usually take a few (complaints) during the political season,” police Lt. Robert Martin said, and will investigate as necessary. But this year, he said, the department hasn’t received those kinds of calls.

He said usually the calls are about signs obstructing traffic, and even those haven’t come in. Martin said, however, that doesn’t mean signs haven’t been stolen and then replaced. They just haven’t received calls or complaints.

“We usually get a few, this year we just haven’t,” he said. “At least not to the point where someone filed report about it.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Falmouth police received several calls about people taking down political signs for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump along U.S. Route 1.

Last week, someone placed a pink bra over a Trump campaign sign at the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Route 88 in Falmouth.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.
  • truther

    So according to the article, campaign signs have to be at least 30 feet apart but the Falmouth PD has elected not to enforce that requirement. The Trump signs along Route 1 in Falmouth are much closer together than 30 feet, which means they are illegally cluttering a public right of way. If the authorities aren’t enforcing the law I don’t see why private citizens can’t intervene.

    • AsL

      I was thinking the same thing. If you enforce people removing signs you have to enforce the distance between signs. Frankly, I’m sure they have better things to do but if you going to intervene don’t pick sides.

  • EABeem

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    There are 160 Trump signs along a one mile stretch of U.S. Route One in Falmouth. Business owners have complained and customers have complained, so when some local women removed a few it was a public service.