One must wonder what Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the gang that started this grand experiment known as the United States of America would think of the government they created today.
Some 236 years ago, when town criers were the norm and printed newspapers were the cutting edge, no one could possibly have envisioned the Internet — let alone advertising — on the scale it is today.
Even so, it doesn’t require a Facebook account or the ability to Twitter in code to understand that some issues are timeless when it comes to liberty.
Manteca’s sign ordinance is a perfect illustration.
Much ado has been made of late over human signs, A-frame signs, and banner signs and how they should be regulated in public places. You may think that government has gone a little overboard on the issue of signs. But what should really give you pause is language in the municipal ordinance that doesn’t regulate but tells you what is and is not a sign, allowing some very interesting loopholes:
Among the gems, the City of Manteca has decreed these are not signs:
•Clothing and tattoos
•Graphics mounted on trains or “duly licensed mass transit vehicles”.
•Gravestones or markers.
•Holiday and cultural observance decorations - as long as they are not up for more than 45 calendar days.
•Shopping carts and horse drawn carriages.
While you might think it is good that government doesn’t regulate any of the aforementioned as “signs” the real question is why should laws contain language on what specifically is not a sign?
This may sound like a trivial matter but consider this: Anything the government can find justification to regulate or officially not say it will regulate, it is essentially conceding control to the government and not individuals.
For example, any constitutional justification that can be found that says the government has the right to outlaw abortions also can be used as the basis for the government to implement a law requiring abortion. China, as an example, has a mandatory abortion law as part of its family planning policy. You may say the United States isn’t China but when push comes to shove all government is about the same thing - establishing rules for governance and individual conduct. From there it is all a matter of degree.
In the case of Manteca’s sign ordinance the door is cracked open a bit to allow the government to regulate even T-shirt messages and grave markers.
What if a sandwich shop decided to giveaway free T-shirts that boldly advertised a luncheon special? Wouldn’t the possibility exist that having hundreds of people walking around Manteca streets wearing neon orange shirts inscribed with foot-long specials for $4.99 could enrage the aesthetic senses of someone who would then demand government ban such practices? It could make bristle if such a sandwich shop decided to pay people $5 apiece per day to parade around in such a T-shirt covered with advertising.
As for grave markers, all it would take are a couple of individuals having corporate logos or catchy phrases from advertising campaigns carved in stone to send the behavioral police into a tizzy.
If you think this is far-fetched remember the city ordinance specifically says holiday decorations displayed for 45 days or less are exempted from regulation as a sign. The intent is pretty clear. Anything that is a holiday or cultural decoration that is up for more than 45 days in a given year becomes a de facto sign and therefore is subject to city regulations, permitting, and fines.
Of course sign regulations don’t matter until someone becomes incensed about aesthetics. The city’s sign ordinance - as well as many others that dictate property maintenance and use - is only on the books to serve as a “broken tail light” for code enforcement. It is the same as the principal of probable cause that gives law enforcement the ability to initiate a vehicle stop to go hunting.
In other words, the sign ordinance exists only for when the city feels like going after someone, not to impose a community standard.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.