In North Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood, a handful of residents have posted signs welcoming immigrants and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. While some see the signs as expressing the community’s values, the Roland Park Civic League says it received complaints that they’re unsightly — and is calling on residents to take them down.
“Please be aware that sign clutter can be a nuisance to your neighbors,” the latest community association newsletter says.
“While we do all have the right to express ourselves, these signs are not permitted according to the Baltimore City Zoning Code,” it continues. “Although it is unlikely that the City will come to Roland Park to enforce these provisions of the Zoning Code, it is the law of our City and we should all try to follow it.”
The city’s top lawyer says the community association is wrong in its interpretation of city law and the signs are protected by the First Amendment.
“The law can do very little about political speech on small signs in a residential area,” City Solicitor Andre Davis told The Baltimore Sun.
Nancy Lewin, 46, who has a Black Lives Matter sign in her yard, said the message in the newsletter felt like an attempt at censorship.
“I don’t want my ability to exercise free speech infringed on,” she said, adding that the sign sends a political message against police brutality, racism and poverty. “I could put up a lot of different signs on my property but I’ve chosen one. The sign went up after Freddie Gray died and has been up ever since.”
Hap Cooper, president of the civic league, said the intent was not to disagree with what the signs say, but to address complaints about how they look.
“We had a couple residents write in and say there was a proliferation of temporary signs and it’s starting to look messy,” Cooper said. “The complaint was not about the message itself. They fully support the message, as do we all.”
Cooper said he hasn’t noticed any neighbors removing their signs as a result of the newsletter.
The issue of small political signs was first raised in August, when a neighbor complained about them. She did not respond to requests for comment.
“I was under the impression that the only yard signs allowed besides For Sale signs are political candidate signs at the time of an election which must be removed within a specified number of days,” she wrote to the community association. “While I fully support the sentiments expressed by these signs, I want to see the regulations of our community upheld. Can the Roland Park office ask residents to remove the offending signs?”
Baltimore zoning law says “portable signs are prohibited” and “temporary signs” may be posted on private property provided there is “prompt removal” after the event or campaign they are promoting. But unlike election campaigns, signs advocating for a political issue are not tied to a specific event or date.
The newsletter has irked some residents of the neighborhood, who argue it’s not the civic league’s role to police small yard signs.
Scott Bissett, 33, has two signs in his yard. One says, “All Are Welcome Here.” The other says, “Hate Has No Home Here.”
“I don’t think they’re controversial,” he said. “They’re a reflection of the views we hold in our house. These signs are not offensive in any way. They’re tastefully done and tastefully put up.”
Bissett said he was surprised no one at the community association considered how bad the letter would look given the neighborhood’s past; it championed racially restrictive covenants a century ago.
“Given the history of Roland Park and the challenges of Baltimore, don’t we have better things to be spending our time on?” Bissett said. “Wasn‘t there anybody there who thought it might rub people the wrong way?”
Tom Hunt, who volunteers with the civic league, said it overstepped with the newsletter.
“Requesting certain neighbors to quiet their political stances should not be the position of the Civic League,” he said.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said there was no legal basis to ask residents to remove the signs.
“This isn’t even a close call. This is such well-settled law,” he said.
Rocah said governments can pass laws restricting political speech in public spaces or even curtail the size of particularly large signs. But courts consistently protect political speech on private property.
“Putting political signs is core political speech entitled to the highest decree of protection by the First Amendment,” he said. “People should feel free to have their political sign, regardless of the message they contain.”
The sign dispute is the latest example of discord in the upscale Baltimore neighborhood.
Last month, someone vandalized the wooden Roland Park community sign, painting “white silence” on it. In response, Cooper said the Civic League put a temporary sign near it expressing the value of tolerance.
"No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor,” the sign says in multiple languages.
Days later, dozens of students, faculty and parents of the Gilman and Roland Park Country schools held a rally against racism in North Baltimore.
The debate in Roland Park is similar to one in Catonsville, where the Knights of Columbus Patapsco Council took down wooden snowmen after one was adorned with the phrase “No hate in 21228” and depicted a chain of multicolored people.