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While people have a right to express themselves with signage on their property, when the message is profane or obscene, it can run counter to the public good and can violate local ordinances.

A Kokomo lawsuit provides the next chapter in a long historical debate about the limitations of free speech.

Brandon Adams has filed suit against the city and Howard County after being asked to remove a banner from the side of his house that reads “F- — Biden and f- — you for voting for him!”

After complaints from neighbors, Adams was asked to remove his flag under a city zoning ordinance which allows “political campaign or anti-police signs,” but prohibits signs that contain “statements, words, or pictures of an obscene, indecent, or immoral character, such as will offend public morals or decency.”

Granted, the latter portion leaves much room for interpretation as to what is considered to be offensive.

Adams’ complaint argues that forcing him to remove the flag is depriving him of his right to free speech, but this doesn’t seem to be the intent of the ordinances.

There is a longstanding legal precedent for restrictions of free speech based not on content but on time, place and manner. Some classic examples are yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and speaking through a bull horn at 3 a.m. in a residential neighborhood. In each example, the content of the speech takes a back seat to the danger or disturbance created by the manner in which the speech is delivered.

Adams’ complaint states that compelling him to remove his flag is to deprive him of the opportunity to participate in public debate over President Biden’s vaccine mandate. If deprived of this freedom, Adams will be “irreparably harmed,” according to the complaint.

The question at hand is not whether someone should be permitted to make a political statement but whether profanity should be permitted to be displayed in such a manner in a residential area.

The impact of offensive signage can go beyond simply annoying the neighbors. It also sends a message to potential home buyers and business entrepreneurs that this is what they can expect to see in the neighborhood.

Adams has many other avenues through which he can express his opinion. The local ordinances can prohibit offensive signage for the good of the neighborhood while causing no impediment to free speech.

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