Judge Ignores First Amendment, Misreads Town Law, While Ordering Resident To Remove 'Fuck Biden' Signs
from the I-guess-we're-extending-ignorance-of-the-law-privileges-to-judges-now dept
A municipal court judge in New Jersey who apparently doesn’t understand either the First Amendment or local ordinances has just ordered a resident to take down some f-bomb-laden signs from her yard. (h/t Peter Bonilla)
A municipal judge on Thursday ruled that a Roselle Park homeowner’s owner’s anti- President Biden flags including the F-bomb on her fence were obscene and must be removed because they violated a borough ordinance.
Roselle Park Municipal Court Judge Gary Bundy ordered the Willow Avenue homeowner to remove the signs with profanity within a week or face a $250-a-day fine. Patricia Dilascio is the property owner but her daughter, Andrea Dick, had the signs, three of which include the F-word, on display.
The signs, which can be seen in this photo, are certainly colorful in terms of language, and very definitely convey their owner’s displeasure with the current regime. However, it would appear they do not violate the ordinance cited by the judge, who also claimed to be all for protecting free speech rights while issuing an order that violates those rights. According to Judge Gary Bundy, free speech is not “absolute” and the town’s law does not “abridge or violate” the First Amendment rights of the signs’ owner.
It is clear from state law and statutes that we cannot simply put up the umbrella of the First Amendment and say everything and anything is protected speech.
Well, that’s true, but only if you insist on limiting your analysis to superlatives, as this judge did. The town’s law does not abridge the property owner’s First Amendment rights. But this application of the law certainly seems to. The phrase “Fuck Biden” — which appears on three different signs — doesn’t actually violate the ordinance the town of Roselle Park claims was violated. The law forbids the public display of “obscene material.” Here’s the law’s definition of that term:
The word “obscene” shall mean any material, communication or performance which the average person applying contemporary community standards existing within the municipality, would find, when considered as a whole:
a. Appeals to the prurient interest;
b. Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct as hereinafter specifically defined, or depicts or exhibits offensive nakedness as hereinafter specifically defined; and
c. Lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Given the “and” between b. and c. and the phrase “when considered as a whole,” these signs would need to violate all three clauses to be considered obscene. “Fuck Biden” seems pretty clearly “political,” even if the value of the sentiment is somewhat debatable. But there’s nothing sexual or prurient about this use of the word “fuck,” which would be taken by literally nobody to mean the property owner is suggesting someone should engage in a sexual act with the current President.
We certainly don’t expect municipal courts to be run by Constitutional scholars or attorneys with years of experience defending civil rights, but we should expect appointed judges to at least keep up with the last 50 years of Supreme Court precedent (including some recent decisions) determining that the word “fuck” — especially when used in conjunction with political issues — is definitely protected speech.
But even the town’s mayor seems to believe residents’ rights end when public officials begin to get offended on behalf of rhetorical minors.
“Today was a win for the borough and decency,” Signorello, the mayor, said in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “While we respect the views of our residents, there’s no place for profanity by a school and school children.”
It was neither, Mayor Signorello. It was a win for people who still think the word “fuck” has the innate power to tear apart the fabric of society. It was a win for people that think the only speech that should be protected is speech they like or agree with.
The judge is no better.
The judge, while handing down his ruling and sentencing, rhetorically asked if a balance could be found between the homeowner’s freedom of speech and a mother having to explain what the f-word means to their child.
“It’s a swear word” would be all the explanation most kids need. And most kids won’t need an explanation because they’re already familiar with the list of words not used in polite society. Judge Bundy seems to believe he’s presiding over a Mayberry-esque community that still has milkmen and separate beds for husbands and wives, rather than a 2021 New Jersey town that’s located in a state best known for mob violence, corrupt politicians, and residents considered only slightly less terrible than Philadelphians.
This is a dumb decision and it’s supported by people saying even dumber things than the judge who blew this Constitutional call. The decision can be appealed and definitely should be. The ordinance doesn’t say what the judge says it does, and the First Amendment still says what it has always said. For the moment, the signs remain up, which presumably means the imaginary uncomfortable family discussions of f-bombs will have to continue until this issue is finally resolved.