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Carlton: A lawn, a sign, and a question of free speech

Ed Solomon posts his political views in the front yard of his South Tampa home. This week two anti-Trump signs got a complaint and a visit from Tampa code enforcement. Would free speech win the day? [Sue Carlton | Times)
Published Jul. 12, 2018

For a minute there, it looked like the fight over free speech might be waged right there on Ed Solomon's South Tampa lawn across from the elementary school.

At 84, Solomon is retired and no stranger to politics. He can talk at length about the Johns Committee's efforts to root out communists and gays more than a half-century ago or the current state of immigration. He is a Democrat who reads and votes and feels so strongly about the state of the country that he fashioned two yard signs that make one man's views clear to anyone passing by. Really clear.

FIRE TRUMP UNFIT BIGOT says one the size of your standard vote-for-me campaign yard sign, with a teddy bear atop it for the children caught in the immigration mess.

His second is even more provocative: Affixed with two plastic hangers, it says 'CHOICE' IN TRUMP'S COURT. In case you were wondering where he stands on the prospect of overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Opining signs are not exactly rare in this town or these times. I pass a house on Davis Islands that demands we support the president. The marquee on a pharmacy across town prays to end abortion. Free speech is our thing, even now.

Right?

This week, a fellow from city code enforcement showed up in Solomon's front yard. There had been a complaint. "Someone took exception to my politics," Solomon said. Well, he was used to reaction: the honks in agreement or disapproval, the guys in jeeps who gave him "symbolic hand gestures," the woman who rolled down her window to say thank you.

Code Enforcement Guy gave him a bright orange door hanger that checked a box marked zoning violation, referred to city code and said "remove prohibited signs by code from property."

And Solomon handed him back a copy of a newspaper article about a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a homeowner's right to post signs.

The next day, a city supervisor called Solomon and said his signs were probably okay, but there was mention of a procedure, a hearing.

Fine. Solomon had no plan to part with his signs. "Over my dead body," is what he said. He put in a call to the ACLU for good measure.

He landed here while in the Air Force 60 years ago, worked for the county division of welfare and the Florida Mental Health Institute. In retirement, he plays trombone in three different bands. In his yard every election cycle, he puts up political signs for candidates and causes he likes.

Sal Ruggiero, city Neighborhood Empowerment manager, told me free speech was not the issue. "Doesn't matter what the content of the sign is. It's (about) size and duration and all that."

Though I'm pretty sure it was neither size nor duration that prompted the complaint.

Yes, Ruggiero said, people call about the content of signs. Two years ago, during a dispute between neighbors, one complained that the other had mowed into his lawn two words forming an explicit and rather vulgar suggestion.

"That's protected speech," Ruggiero said.

The next day, Solomon got the call: His signs were fine, score one for free speech, not to mention size and duration. He can keep fighting the good fight across that blank square of cardboard, not that they could have stopped him.

Which in troubled times, has to be a good sign.

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