"Sam the Sign Man" sues Bedford over sign ordinance

Bedford signs lawsuit

BEDFORD, Ind. (WTHR) - He's known for putting up signs many call offensive and mean-spirited and now Sam Shaw and the ACLU of Indiana are suing the City of Bedford over a new law that forced him to take those signs down.

Sam Shaw said the new rules ordinance violates his First Amendment right to free speech, but several residents say Shaw has gone too far.

Shaw, 76, has been putting up large, white plywood signs with red lettering on his corner lot for 20-some years.

"People love to see it," he said. "They long for it - what sign will I put up next?"

But Shaw and his signs have also long been at the center of controversy.

"He definitely has his own opinion and he doesn't mind stepping on toes to make his statements," said Libby Borodach.

While some signs aren't likely to provoke upset, like one promoting an upcoming dance, others take on everything from race and religion to making derogatory comments about elected officials. One asks "What kind of Christian is (Mayor) Shawna Girgis?"

Putting aside a sign that used a racial slur, Shaw said, "you might not like this one," while insisting he wasn't racist.

It's with that backdrop, Bedford recently passed a new ordinance regulating yard signs.

"This ordinance is targeting strictly me," Shaw said. "It's a personal vendetta."

Never mentioning Shaw's name, a statement from the mayor's office read in part, "The current sign ordinance specifies the size and number of signs allowed on residential and non-residential property but does not stipulate restrictions on content."

But it isn't the content that Borodach and other residents say is the problem.

"He's entitled to his opinion but I think he needs to find a better way to show it," Borodach said.

"Everyone has a right to expression, but when you drag down your neighborhood, I don't like it at all," said Forrest Lake.

But as offensive as some may find the signs, Shaw says they're protected as free speech.

"You don't have to look at it or agree with it," Shaw said, "but I have the right to put them there and once the Constitution says I have no right, then there are no signs."

Bill Lloyd, who owns a sign shop said, "some of (the signs) are offensive, but guess he's flirting with freedom of speech."

Shaw knows he's far from the most popular guy in town. He's run for office many times, this year for school board, and never come close to winning. He acknowledges he's not welcome at many places, including the library and several churches, but he said he never gives up and he won't with the signs, either.

"This is my life, freedom of speech," he said.

Jan Mensz, an attorney with the ACLU of Indiana, said the organization felt it important to represent Shaw.

"The ability to express your ideas, your political views, your ideological views by posting a sign is an old tradition in America," Mensz said. "And, after reviewing the ordinance at issue, we concluded it did violate the First Amendment."

While no one from the city was available to comment on camera Tuesday, the mayor's office issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

The City of Bedford Planning Commission began reviewing the city sign ordinance a few years ago. The sign ordinance was reviewed and revised by a special committee of the Planning Commission and subsequently passed by the Planning Commission. A public hearing was held prior to passage by the City Council on April 14, 2015.

On June 18, 2015 the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert that sign ordinances implemented by many municipalities were null and void based on content restrictions. The citizens of Bedford were informed of this ruling and all sign enforcement ceased with the exception of setback rules and placement of signage on public right-of-way.

Subsequently, the special committee of the Planning Commission began working on a new sign ordinance to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. The result was Ordinance 15-2016 that was passed by the Bedford City Council in September 2016. The current sign ordinance specifies the size and number of signs allowed on residential and non-residential property but does not stipulate restrictions on content.

Elected officials of the City of Bedford took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the State of Indiana and are whole heartedly committed to upholding their statutes. There is a lack of case studies in existence for local units of government to determine best practices for sign regulation implementation following the newest Supreme Court ruling. Accordingly, we look forward to addressing this matter and resolving it as quickly as possible.