Sign case taken to federal court

By Ed Brock

The owners of a "Support our troops" sign who were forced by Jonesboro city officials to remove the sign are taking their case to federal court.

Attorneys for Lee and Robby Moore of Moore Insurance on Main Street have filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in which they essentially claim that the city's sign ordinance violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The first hearing on the compliant will be held Thursday at 2 p.m.

"We would like to invite all veterans and people with family members in the war to come to the hearing," Robby Moore said.

During that hearing the Moores will ask for a temporary restraining order allowing the Moores to put up the sign until the case is resolved, said the Moores' attorney Adam Webb.

"Hopefully by Friday evening he'll be able to put that sign back up," Webb said.

In March 2003 as the nation was preparing for war in Iraq the Moores, who are father and son, erected the sign, which read "Support our troops or leave." It stood unchallenged until November when the city's code enforcement officer Anthony Butler instructed them to take it down.

When they did not do so he issued them a citation for having the sign without a permit, Jonesboro City Manager Jon Walker said previously.

On Feb. 26 Lee Moore pleaded "nolo contendere" to the citation in Jonesboro Municipal Court on Thursday and was fined $80. He was also ordered to take down the sign that had stood in front of the Main Street office of his business, Moore Insurance, since the outset of the war in Iraq last March.

Lee Moore, a Vietnam War-era veteran whose brother-in-law died in Vietnam, called the incident "a crying shame."

The Moores said they tried to get a permit for the sign twice but were turned down. Walker said the sign exceeded the amount of signage allowed under the ordinance.

Webb said the ordinance distinguishes between political signs used to endorse a political candidate, granting such signs more leeway, and generally political signs such as one in support of the war.

"The courts have said that if you're going to distinguish between types of political signs you have to have a compelling government interest," Webb said. "There is no such interest here."

Walker reiterated a previous statement that the city has no problem with the content of the sign and would grant the Moores a permit so long as they met the code. The code speaks for itself, Walker said, and he couldn't discuss the case in more detail because it is still pending.

Under the definitions section of the ordinance there is no definition for "political sign." However, the Moores' second attorney Scott Bennett said that section 86-288 of the ordinance, under exemptions, contains special instructions for "temporary political campaign signage" that specifically refers to the signs as having the names of candidates or issues that appear on a ballot.

That establishes a definition of one kind of sign, Bennett said, but leaves out other political signs such as the Moores.

Those signs are allowed 32 square feet, enough space for the Moores' sign. Robby Moore said he definitely considers his sign to be a political sign.

"It's not a commercial sign," Moore said.

Moore said they have not reapplied with the city for a new permit since the court appearance.

The Moores are also seeking some damages in their complaint, including the cost of the fine, the days Lee Moore lost from work while attending court and attorney's fees.

"He shouldn't have to come out of his pocket for any of that," Webb said.