Thornton political sign debate resurfaces

Some councilors see code amendment as “slippery slope,” while others defend they are protecting free speech

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/16/21

An amendment to the city of Thornton’s sign code that has sparked a fierce debate among the city council about free speech passed on a 5-3 vote at a meeting on Aug. 10. Primarily, the code change …

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Thornton political sign debate resurfaces

Some councilors see code amendment as “slippery slope,” while others defend they are protecting free speech

Posted

An amendment to the city of Thornton’s sign code that has sparked a fierce debate among the city council about free speech passed on a 5-3 vote at a meeting on Aug. 10.

Primarily, the code change would allow residents to display signs or banners on legally parked vehicles on private property. Some council members worry it’s a slippery slope to allowing people to display offensive material with little accountability, but others supported the change as a defense of First Amendment rights.

“It’s been coming back like a bad dream,” said Councilman Sam Nizam, one of the three who voted against the amendment. He was joined by Councilors Jacque Phillips and Julia Marvin.

Marvin echoed Nizam at the meeting on Aug. 9. “It doesn’t seem like anything changed from the last time we voted,” she said. Mayor Jan Kulmann, Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren, and Councilors David Acunto, Angie Bedolla and Adam Matkowsky supported the amendment. The council will have to vote on the resolution a second time at a future meeting.

The debate about the vehicle sign code dates back to a public hearing on March 23, when the council first voted on the measure and passed it with a 5-3 vote. In that public hearing, one resident shared she was worried about the amendment allowing people to display a sign with offensive content and to drive away before someone could stop them.

Currently, the city code allows the display of banners on cars advertising for a business, not a political sign for example. The code amendment would change that, although vehicles with political signs would technically need to remain stationary. But residents and some council said at the March 23 meeting that they don’t believe everyone will abide by that.

Another section of the city’s sign code allows any “form of speech or expression protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and/or the Colorado Constitution.”

At the March meeting, other council members said that to criticize the code change is to attack free speech.

“I don’t want to mess with the foundation of our country, which is the First Amendment,” Bedolla said. “And I hope that there will not be signs that … are creating an opportunity for more negativity.”

Acunto said, “In my mindset if the very first thing that comes to your mind that there are going to be lots of negative messages put on signs, maybe that’s a time for self-evaluation.”

When the council passed the amendment in March, it had to vote on the measure again on second reading at an April 13 meeting. That time, the council voted 4-4, thus defeating a motion because of the tie. That time, Bedolla was absent and Councilwoman Sherry Goodman, who opposed the motion, was present.

When city staff brought the resolution back to the council on Aug. 10, the process restarted.

Then, the council discussed the issue very little compared to previous meetings. Though it had been months since the last time the code amendment came up, both sides of the debate retained their positions.

Nizam said, “Everything I do in this council, it’s about we, not me. I think this one has nothing about we, it has everything about me.”

Meanwhile, Kulmann said, “I understand there are other political issues that go with this as well, but to me, this is not the priority here.”

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