Sign of the times

April 15, 2002|BY DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

If James Grinder lived outside Hagerstown, he could be forced to take down a homemade sign that has drawn complaints over its use of a profanity.

Washington County has a law prohibiting signs that contain "statements, words, or pictures of an obscene, indecent or immoral character, or such as will offend public morals or decency."

But if Grinder, 34, didn't live in Hagerstown, he probably wouldn't have put up the sign.

Grinder erected two signs in his yard to voice his displeasure about a proposed real estate tax increase in Hagerstown. The signs face oncoming traffic on U.S. 40 east in Hagerstown's West End.


One of the signs has the phrase "TAX Hike; MY A--"

It is that last word that has offended some people and prompted many phone calls to city police.

Hagerstown has no law restricting what can be written on a yard sign like Grinder's. Because his sign is within city limits, county laws do not apply.

"I'm sorry if I offended anyone but, hey," Grinder said with a shrug.

"I just remembered what I told (my wife): "tax hike, my a--," Grinder said when asked how he choose what to write on the sign. "I didn't mean to offend anyone. You hear worse than that over TV and radio. ... I was just so mad at the time."

Grinder lives on the corner of Washington Avenue, which is also U.S. 40, and Bryan Place. His signs are placed so people driving into the city from the west can read them.

The sign that has caused the stir is also easily seen from Truth Christian Academy, across Washington Avenue on Bryan Circle.

"I have to look at that thing every day," said Greg Shatzer, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at the private school.

"The language bothers me," Shatzer said. "He's free to put that in his yard but I don't have to like it."

Shatzer said none of the students has asked about the sign.

Joan Ashbrook, who lives on Bryan Place a few houses from Grinder, also doesn't like the sign.

"I don't appreciate that he uses profanity in it," Ashbrook said. "There's a lot of kids around here and there's enough profanity already."

Some neighbors said Grinder's signs don't bother them.

"He's a little sore. But he's a nice man," said William Sayles, Grinder's next-door neighbor.

"It's no big deal to me," said Charles Mummert, who lives across the street.

"My daughter said, 'Mommy that's a bad word,' " said Debbie Taylor, another Bryan Place neighbor. "I said, 'Just don't pay any attention to it.' "

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said he hasn't gotten any complaints about the sign, but even if he had the city probably couldn't outlaw the word.

"It's a difficult word. In the term it's used, it's offensive," Breichner said, adding that the word can also be used to describe an animal.

Breichner said if Grinder had used a more profane word, "I would certainly want to do something about it."

City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said that even if some people find certain words offensive, the First Amendment protects a person's right to express their opinion.

"I don't think the government should be allowed to limit content," Metzner said.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said that while city law does not limit the content of a sign, it limits the size of signs. Combined, Grinder's signs exceed the limit, so the city could make Grinder take down one of the signs but couldn't specify which one, he said.

Zimmerman said there are no plans to ask Grinder to remove one of his signs.

"We're trying to respect his right to comment on our city budget," said Zimmerman, who proposed the tax increase Grinder is protesting.

Like Washington County, the city of Frederick, Md., has a law restricting words that can be used on a public sign.

Frederick Zoning Administrator Catherine Parks said even though Grinder is using an apparent obscenity, that doesn't mean if the sign was in Frederick it would have to be taken down.

"I would ask the city attorney whether this is protected by his First Amendment rights," Parks said.

Washington County Permits and Inspections Department Deputy Director Randy Dick said the county attorney would be consulted if such a sign were erected in the county.

"But I would think we would probably ask him to take it down," Dick said.

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