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Signs of the times: Political signs bring critics, questions about what town rules allow

Retired Air Force Col. Joe Schad, 75, stands behind his political signs on his privacy fence behind his West Queen Street home in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG — Joseph Schad, of Strasburg, has had signs on the fence of his Queen Street property for several weeks supporting Democratic candidates and policies and criticizing President Donald Trump.

In a town that voted for Trump over his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by a 35-point margin, he was expecting to hear people criticize them. But weeks after the handmade signs first came up, containing phrases like “Make America Compassionate Again” and “Swamp Gone, Now GOP Sewer,” only one person had come up to him.

“One guy who saw me putting up my sign the other day said, ‘You need some red,'” Schad said. “That’s the only negative comment I’ve had.”

Then, a resident posted a photo of his signs on a Facebook page that Schad said he had not been aware existed. By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, over 100 people had commented on the post, with many residents questioning the legality of Schad’s signs.

In support of their allegation, they pointed to portions of the town’s code that restrict how political election signs can be constructed.

Retired Air Force Col. Joe Schad said he plans to put more political signs up on his property. Rich Cooley/Daily

Town Manager Wyatt Pearson said that after these posts appeared on social media and after several Town Council members alerted him to the post, he will look into whether or not the signs follow the town’s code.

Pearson said that he is not yet sure whether the town will find the signs in accordance with town code.

But the town will not enforce the parts of the code relating to how political election signs can be put up. That’s because the Supreme Court, in a 2015 case, unanimously determined that sign regulations like the ones Strasburg has violate free speech protections in the Constitution. Sign regulations, the Supreme Court determined, cannot restrict the content the signs can display.

“We have to make sure that it’s done in accordance with the right of free speech,” Pearson said.

But if some of the signs do violate the town’s sign code, the town would enforce the code, even if the political messages the signs contain may appear to make any enforcement seem politically fraught.

“From our perspective, it’s just a sign,” Pearson said. “We don’t even read what message it is.”

Pearson said that when the town does find signs in violation of the town’s sign code, town staff tries to speak to the sign owners to clarify what the regulations require.

For Schad, the episode has been entertaining. When the Northern Virginia Daily contacted him and showed him the posts, he had heard about them but hadn’t seen them.

When one of those posts called the signs illegal, he laughed.

“Oh, that’s good,” he said.

He said that he expected he would’ve heard more from people about the signs. One of the reasons he placed the signs in the first place, he said, was to get people to see them.

“I want people to see it and read, and I hope it makes at least one or two people think,” he said. “That’s what America is about, for crying out loud.”

But he certainly didn’t expect that conversation to happen on Facebook, at least not on a page he didn’t know about until he became the central topic of conversation.

“I’ve been waiting for somebody to say something, but I didn’t realize there was this whole thing going on,” Schad said. “I thought, ‘Man, nobody seems to care.'”

In any case, the latest controversy won’t force Schad to take his signs down. In a heavily Republican area, he said, where he’s heard from some left-leaning residents who are reluctant to state their political views, the signs make his political views clear to anyone who stops by.

In fact, he said he was planning on putting more signs up.

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