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Free Speech vs. City Code: Fresno Cracks Down on Political, Business Signs

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The city of Fresno has confiscated dozens of political and commercial signs it says were illegally on municipal property. (GV Wire/David Taub)
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The city of Fresno has confiscated dozens of signs — political and commercial — claiming their placement violated the municipal code.

“This is really an educational campaign. We want to educate the political campaigns,” Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz said. “We don’t want to punish anybody. We don’t want to stifle free speech. But, the United States Supreme Court has consistently held that cities are allowed to regulate speech, such as political signs, in accordance with time, manner, and place.”

The campaigns of at least two candidates — Dion Bourdase and Matthew Gillian — received letters from the City Attorney’s office, warning them not to post signs on public property.

“This is a courtesy letter to inform you that the City of Fresno (City) has received complaints regarding illegally placed signs advertising your campaign throughout the City of Fresno. The placement of signs on public property, public right-of-way, or utility poles is a violation of the Fresno Municipal Code (FMC §§ 10-605(j), 15-2605, 15-2611(G).) Signs placed on
public property will be removed,” the letters stated.

The city gave letter recipients five days to comply. Additional complaints could result in “enforcement action,” the city said, with fees starting at $146 an hour.

Janz’s office also sent reminder letters to other city and county candidates about the sign ordinances.

The city is storing hundreds of signs pulled from the street on City Hall’s third floor. The confiscated materials include campaign signs, as well as signs for upcoming concerts and the removal service Top Junk.

Bourdase Says He May Take Action

“It seems to me that that’s this is an action that is more intended to stifle free speech. And I think that this is kind of exactly the issue that we’re running into in Fresno.”Supervisor candidate Dion Bourdase

Janz said the Bourdase and Gillian signs were found mainly in northwest Fresno, along Blackstone, Bullard, and Herndon avenues. The signs were posted on public medians, and grassy areas next to sidewalks, fences, and utility poles.

Bourdase, a candidate for Fresno County Supervisor District 2, said his intent is to follow the law. However, he doesn’t believe he is breaking any rules.

“It seems to me that that’s this is an action that is more intended to stifle free speech. And I think that this is kind of exactly the issue that we’re running into in Fresno,” Bourdase said.

Although the letter was dated Jan. 23, Bourdase said he learned of the problem when contacted by the media. He is considering his next steps, which include sending the city a cease-and-desist letter.

“This is a constitutionally guaranteed right. And, as we found many times, just because somebody writes a law, doesn’t mean that’s legal, And, if need be, once I do receive this letter, if it needs to be challenged, I plan on taking such action,” Bourdase said.

He said he is in compliance with state law regarding signs, citing the State Outdoor Advertising Act. The act allows for temporary political signs, as long as it is not within the right-of-way of a highway.

Janz has a different interpretation.

“My reading of that statute is that applies to areas around state highways or state property. Local municipalities have been given wide latitude by the Legislature to regulate our own campaign signage … especially when public safety is at stake,” Janz said.

Janz said signs on public property and around medians could present a driving hazard.

“They are not only a nuisance, but a distraction for motorists. They are placed at intersections where, say, a motorist is, approaching a red light, the signs are bright. They’re red. They catch people’s attention. The attention is diverted potentially causing, traffic accidents,” Janz said. He did not have any specifics of such signs causing accidents.

Gillian is a candidate for Fresno City Council District 2.

“I appreciate the city storing any signs that may have been inappropriately placed,” Gillian said.

Political signs for Dion Bourdase and Matthew Gillian that were confiscated by the city of Fresno. (GV Wire/David Taub)

What the Code Says

The city has not issued any fines, just warnings. But Janz said the city is willing to push back if needed.

Campaigns can pick up the signs from City Hall, but Janz said he will ask for a compliance agreement in return.

Technically, signs on private property need permission from the owner. Janz said the city will leave those alone unless the property owner requests removal.

Campaign signs at a popular spot in northwest Fresno. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

Read City Letter to Candidate

The following is the letter sent by the city to Bourdase. A similar letter was sent to Gillian.

Curiosity drives David Taub. The award-winning journalist might be shy, but feels mighty with a recorder in his hand. He doesn't see it his job to "hold public officials accountable," but does see it to provide readers (and voters) the information needed to make intelligent choices. Taub has been honored with several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. He's just happy to have his stories read. Joining GV Wire in 2016, Taub covers politics, government and elections, mainly in the Fresno/Clovis area. He also writes columns about local eateries (Appetite for Fresno), pro wrestling (Off the Bottom Rope), and media (Media Man). Prior to joining the online news source, Taub worked as a radio producer for KMJ and PowerTalk 96.7 in Fresno. He also worked as an assignment editor for KCOY-TV in Santa Maria, California, and KSEE-TV in Fresno. He has also worked behind the scenes for several sports broadcasts, including the NCAA basketball tournament, and the Super Bowl. When not spending time with his family, Taub loves to officially score Fresno Grizzlies games. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Taub is a die-hard Giants and 49ers fan. He graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in communications and political science. Go Blue! You can contact David at 559-492-4037 or at Send an Email