Let’s be clear about one thing: Roberta “Bobbi” Smith is innocent. Charges alleging that she unlawfully removed political signs in Gilbert last May have been dropped, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
This column isn’t about Smith. It’s about a law that is in obvious need of rewriting. According to the County Attorney’s Office, right now the law says that if a sign is “political,” you can’t remove or damage it without possibly facing some legal penalty. But if it’s an “ideological” sign, well, the law just doesn’t cover those.
Last May, the Tribune’s Mike Sakal reported that police said they found about 12 signs in Smith’s vehicle. Originally posted by Gilbert activist Steve Johnson, officers said the signs read “Shame on Gilbert” and “If you can read this sign, Tom Abbott has not taken it yet,” according to Sakal’s story.
Tom Abbott is the husband of then-Gilbert Town Councilwoman Linda Abbott, Smith’s friend. Linda Abbott was running for re-election at the time. She lost.
The Tribune reported last week that a letter to Johnson from Deputy Maricopa County Attorney J. Raimondo said the charges were being dismissed “because there is no reasonable likelihood for conviction at this time.” Raimondo wrote that, under the Gilbert Municipal Code, the signs were not political signs, but “ideological” ones.
Maybe a semantics instructor can differentiate in practical terms what the difference between what is political and what is ideological. Gilbert’s code doesn’t.
According to Section 42-31(g) of the code, it’s a class 1 misdemeanor “to knowingly remove, destroy, alter, deface or cover any political sign in the town.” The ordinance goes on to define “political sign” as “any sign erected for the purposes of influencing an election, whether the election of a candidate or other election.” It doesn’t define what is an “ideological sign.”
Not all statements of ideology are political. For example, a sign that says, “Commit random acts of kindness” promotes an ideology of charity, but makes no political statement. But some ideological statements are also definitely political. For example, a sign reading, “No amnesty for illegal immigrants,” is both. It expresses an ideology — what one generally believes — and a political position that something should be done about it.
So how does one conclude that signs talking about a political entity, Gilbert, and about the husband of a town councilwoman, are not political? And how can they not be political particularly when they were placed in the midst of campaign signs?
I have never met Steve Johnson, but after looking at his website, shameongilbert.org, it is quite difficult to conclude that either his creating it or signs bearing the slogan that is the site’s name were not for political purposes.
Likewise, if someone makes an allegation about a candidate’s spouse, it’s not in a vacuum. It’s certainly not in a vacuum if one makes that allegation on a sign placed next to one promoting the candidate to whom that spouse is married.
Tom Abbott is also innocent. He has never been charged with removing signs, political or otherwise. It’s fair to say he wasn’t happy with the message about him on Johnson’s signs.
We know that his signs were about Tom Abbott, husband of someone campaigning for public office, and about campaign signs.
Apparently, though, that’s not enough for the County Attorney’s Office to call Johnson’s signs political ones, which would trigger the provisions of Section 42-31(g).
It’s a section that, because of its definition of what is “political,” leaves other signs that are quite political nonetheless without protection.
But shouldn’t Gilbert be protecting anyone’s legally placed signs from removal or damage, whether they are “political,” “ideological” or merely annoying? If somebody took a sign down from the front of a business without the owner’s permission and drove away with it, wouldn’t that person be committing theft? If somebody took that same sign, threw it on the ground, took a can of spray paint and wrote a message on it, wouldn’t that person be committing vandalism?
Apparently, under current town ordinances, in Gilbert, a sign has to be political for its owner’s rights to free expression to be protected, and for the sign itself to be protected from someone walking off with it.
The letter also said Raimondo’s office’s decision “does not preclude you (Johnson) from personally pursuing legal action against the defendant,” and offered Johnson assistance and answers to questions. But whether someone took or defaced something that does not belong to him or her should not be a civil matter.
Gilbert’s Town Council members should pencil in some time at the ordinance re-drawing board in the very near future.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.