Monday, July 14, 2008

Free Speech?

Image credit: Free speech is available for $12.95 plus shipping and handling from

I was reading my town's local paper this evening and saw this little item:

The Land Use and Transportation committee will re-examine and possibly amend its sign code, which has recently upset several local real estate agents.

For the second time in the past month, real estate agents opposing the code piled into Federal Way City Hall on July 7 to request the city provide exceptions to agents who are struggling to sell homes in a slumped market.

“I think this is something we really need to look at,” committee member Dini Duclos said.

Federal Way real estate agents take issue with sign code

This is the sort of thing that town hall and city council meetings deal with all over the country. Ordinances are too restrictive, too unwieldy, or too unclear to enforce properly, and people complain about it. Or they just complain to complain. Other than that, the only interesting thing about this story so far was that it's a sign that things are getting bad in the real estate market. This area was one of the liveliest markets in the country until a couple of years ago. Now it's getting pretty bad.

What caught my eye, though, was this bit:

Sam Pace, with the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors, told the committee Monday that the city’s enforcement of the sign code is in violation of the First Amendment — freedom of speech.

Federal Way real estate agents take issue with sign code

The emphasis is mine, of course. Freedom of speech? These people are complaining about the city confiscating signs that they put up to advertise an open house or some other special event. Where's the speech?

Folks, this is free speech:

There's an idea there - end the war so that her husband and all those other spouses can come home.

image credit: Elvert Barnes

And heaven help us, this is free speech. It's not an idea that I'd be proud of, but it's an idea. It's a statement of principles, if you will.

Hanging a sign out on a lawn that says "Open House Here" isn't speech - it's an advisory. People looking for an open house know there's one there. It's not political speech, and it isn't even worthy of being called an idea.

Image credit: The Dread Pirate Bluto.

I've written before about advertisers who have the gall to term what they do "speech". Calling what they do "speech" cheapens the meaning of the word, I think, in ways even Fred Phelps couldn't manage.

In the case of this little local controversy, I think the realtors may have a point. They carry signs around to these events that they take up at the end of the day. Should those be treated the same as signs that are left unattended? Maybe not. It could even be argued that they're providing an important service, and that right now it's important to make it possible for people to move around to find new employment without being saddled by houses they can't sell. Maybe someone needs to fix the law here so it makes more sense.

But invoking free speech is a tasteless exercise in hyperbole. I wish they wouldn't do that anymore, but they probably will.

UPDATE (July 15): The author of the FWM article was kind enough to point out that what the realtors were actually complaining about was that the city were confiscating their signs. I changed the wording a bit to reflect that. Thank you, Ms. Howard.


Dana Hunter said...

I'll know we're doomed when "YARD SALE SATURDAY!!" ends up under the heading of "Constitutionally protected speech."

Really, people. There are limits.

Cujo359 said...

In America, we're only limited by our reserves of chutzpah.