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Private property rights trump free speech rights

By Scott Tibbs, May 12, 2007

This week's edition of the Bloomington Alternative carries the story of a local woman who is upset that she was told by her landlord to take an anti-war sign out of her window. "I felt that was a major violation of my rights," said Elizabeth Verbich-Britton.

But her rights were not violated. The 1st and 14th amendments to the Constitution make it illegal for the federal and state governments to censor free speech. Had city government came to her apartment and told her to take the sign down, she would have a case that she could fight. I would support her in that fight, but that is not the case here.

The sign is on private property not owned by Verbich-Britton. Her landlord has the right to disallow any political sign in any window for any reason. It could be because he does not agree with the message or because he does not like the color yellow. Unless the contract between Verbich-Britton and her landlord has a clause that allows her to put such a sign in her window, she must take it down if ordered to do so by her landlord. If the terms of her contract are not to her liking, Verbich-Britton is free to move somewhere else.

None of this means that Verbich-Britton does not have the right to publicly disagree with this policy, especially if it is based on the content of the sign as opposed to a policy against having any sign in her window. She is free to display the sign on her own property. In fact, Verbich-Britton herself notes that more people have seen her sign since she put it on her vehicle than when it was in her window.

However, it seems childish to put a second sign on her van whining and crying about "freedom of speech". That takes the focus off the message of the sign and changes the issue to be about the sign and the disagreement with Verbich-Britton and her landlord. While I have praised the Bloomington Alternative in the past for the investigative journalism they have done, it is silly to make this the number one story of the biweekly newspaper. This is a non-issue if there ever was one.