Trump supporters frequently comment on how it can be dangerous to publicly support their candidate, with threats of retaliation and public harassment following such proclamations. But the one thing you don’t generally hear about is people being tossed in jail for it. That may wind up being the case in New Jersey, however, where one man has been issued a summons for flying a “Make America Great Again” flag over his home. Failure to remove it could result in a hefty fine or a stretch in the hoosegow. (Reuters)

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump appears to have a passionate supporter in Joseph Hornick, a New Jersey man who faces a $2,000 fine or 90 days in jail for flying a flag emblazoned with the billionaire candidate’s name over his home.

Local officials said the flag violates an ordinance prohibiting the display of political signs more than 30 days ahead of an election and issued him a summons. New Jersey’s primary is on June 7.

For weeks, Hornick has displayed the blue flag with Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” campaign slogan on a pole outside his two-story West Long Branch house, at a busy intersection near Monmouth University, in a show of his support for Trump. Trump has been campaigning this week in neighboring New York in an effort to snag the Republican presidential nomination.

Something tells me that Mr. Hornick might not be in as much trouble as the media descriptions would indicate. There are a few reasons to suspect that this may turn out to be a case which is either dismissed or successfully challenged and simply ends up getting Trump some additional free publicity. The first point to make is that the article reveals that the homeowner originally said he would comply with the order and take down the flag, but changed his mind after consulting his attorney.

Unless his lawyer is a complete idiot, Hornick may have a clear path to stay out of jail. Having worked some congressional campaigns, I can tell you that we had to deal with the various laws regarding political signage and it’s always a mess. There are federal laws in place regarding lawn signs defining of where they can be placed in terms of obstructing traffic and the need for disclosure of the source of the sign. (This applies to signs created and distributed by the campaign or by supporting PACs primarily.) The various states also have some of their own laws along those lines. It’s when you get down to the local, municipal level where you run into trouble.

Many towns and cities have laws on the books limiting how far in advance of elections you can put out yard signs. These are largely intended to reduce clutter and prevent obstruction, and they often carry matching instructions for how soon the signs must be taken down after the election is over. But there have been long running questions about whether or not such laws abridge free speech and if the town has the right to limit displays of any kind on the private property of homeowners. Further, these laws typically (at least in our area) have strict descriptions of what constitutes a “sign” and what size it can be, how close to the road or sidewalk, etc.

In this case, Mr. Hornick has a flagpole in his yard and he’s flying an actual cloth flag, not posting a sign with a frame driven into the ground. Flagpoles tend to run under an entirely different set of municipal laws and they deal with height and placement questions, not the content of the “message.” We have several neighbors with flagpoles which are permanent installations and they fly various flags all year round. You can always fly the American flag or a POW/MIA banner or even the state flag with no problems. (If you try the Confederate Battle Flag it’s another question.) They also have seasonal flags for the major holidays or the changing of the seasons. None of these are cause to be dragged into court. I’m not sure that this Trump flag would even fall under political signage laws.

The municipal ordinances for West Long Branch, New Jersey are available online here and it’s not at all clear there is a violation. The section on signs seems fairly straightforward.

3-19 POLITICAL SIGNS.
3-19.1 Definitions.

As used in this section, the following terms shall have the meanings indicated:

Political sign shall mean a sign which directs attention to an issue, issues, candidate or candidates for public consideration in an election, including the name of a political party.

Property or parcel shall mean any property other than property which is publicly owned. (Ord. #O-07-15, S 1)

3-19.2 Posting on Public Property and Utility Structures Prohibited.

No political sign shall be erected, posted, placed on or attached to any public property, utility pole, traffic sign, street sign, fire hydrant, public telephone booth or similar public fixture. (Ord. #O-07-15, S 2)

3-19.3 Posting on Private Property Restricted.

a. No political sign shall be erected, posted or placed on private property without the express consent of the owner, which owner shall then be responsible for compliance with this section.
b. No sign in excess of six (6) square feet shall be permitted to be placed on grounds or yards (front, rear or side) facing any public street.
c. All such signs must be at least six (6′) feet from the curbline or, if there is no curb, six (6′) feet from the edge of the paved street.
d. No candidate’s name or issue may appear on more than one (1) sign per property.
e. No political sign may be illuminated.
f. Any political sign erected or placed pursuant to this section shall be constructed of such material that it will not readily tear, and shall be affixed so that it will not readily become detached. (Ord. #O-07-15, S 3)

3-19.4 Time Posting; Removal.

a. No political sign shall be displayed sooner than thirty (30) days prior to the date of the election or the decision of the issue is scheduled.
b. Signs shall be removed within five (5) days following said election or date of decision. (Ord. #O-07-15, S 4)

So does Mr. Hornick’s flag fall under this? In the definitions section of the municipal codes (18-3) they provide instructions as to various bits of terminology. Here’s what they have to say about signs. (Emphasis added)

Sign shall mean any device, structure or object for visual communication that is used for the purpose of bringing the subject thereto to the attention of others, but not including any flag, badge or insignia of any public, quasi-public, civic, charitable or religious groups.

Does that mean that no flag is included, or no flag specific to public, civic, charitable or religious groups? Hard to say, but clearly the homeowner’s attorney thinks he may have the upper hand on this one. We’ll check back in after it’s resolved, but don’t be surprised if Joseph Hornick has the last laugh.

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