Signage issues at the heart of referendum campaign

First Amendment lawyer says village ordinance won't likely hold up in court

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By Nona Tepper

Resident Jerry Webster was driving around town about a week ago when he noticed signs. Huge ones that read, "Let Forest Park Grow – Vote No!" posted by the committee established to support video gaming in town. Webster is against video gaming because he has a friend who struggles with a gambling addiction.

As Webster drove by Healy's Westside, he thought back about five years, when he had a sign planted on his front yard endorsing then-mayoral candidate and resident Chris Harris. The sign was larger than the village limit regulating political signage — which is 6 square feet, according to the ordinance — so he had to take the sign down. As Webster continued driving around town, he saw another large sign posted at the Let Forest Park Grow headquarters. 

"I thought, why do they have those up? Those are illegal."

James Watts, chairman of Let Forest Park Grow and owner of O'Sullivan's Public House, is the bar owner who brought the local battle over video gaming to the state Supreme Court. Mark Hosty, manager at Healy's Westside, is a former Forest Park village commissioner.

Webster says their violation of the village ordinance regulating political signage points to a larger concern he has with the practice of video gaming in town: Trust. He called the village. 

"I just feel that if you know the rules, you should follow them," Webster said. "Since Hosty was a commissioner when that ordinance was put into being, he should follow the rules. If you don't follow the rules, what does that say about you?

"If this is how they're going to run their business, if they win, then Madison is going to look like a little Las Vegas. That's how much trust I have in these people."  

 If video gaming is permanently legalized in Forest Park, then Webster said he has no doubt bar owners will eventually put up signs advertising the practice, even though it would also violate village ordinance. He believes the village wouldn't even challenge the move in court, since officials know it would lose. He pointed to an article in the Review, where the village attorney said Forest Park's prohibition of video gaming signs wouldn't withstand a legal challenge.    

"If it's challenged, in my personal opinion, they'll just roll over on it like, 'OK, we're not going to spend money on something we're going to lose,'" he said. 

Watts said Let Forest Park Grow wasn't aware of any regulations regarding the size of political signage since, in past elections, he has seen larger signs posted and the village ordinance wasn't enforced. 

"I can tell you, living in town for over 30 years, there have been signs larger than that," Watts said, adding: "I think there's a certain group of people who have some ulterior agenda and are focused on it."  

He said any additional signs the group posts will be within the village's size ordinance, adding that he and the bar owners are working on an agreement promising not to post video gaming signage. Since it's not formalized yet, Watts declined to discuss its specifics.    

But even if a bar puts up a sign advertising video gaming, the village ordinance would force them to take it down, he said, since, in order to get a video gaming license from the Illinois Gaming Board, bar owners must hold a local liquor license. To get a Forest Park liquor license, they must agree to comply with all village ordinances surrounding the license, including the ordinance that states that bar owners cannot advertise video gaming.  

"My understanding is, it's tied to our liquor license and it's not really covered under any signage ordinance per se," Watts said. 

Village Attorney Thomas Bastian did not respond to interview requests about whether the ordinance would hold up in court; a representative from his office said he was out of town. 

But Attorney Brendan Healey, partner at the Chicago-based Mandell Menkes LLC law firm, who specializes in First Amendment cases related to video gaming advertising, said a video gaming sign ban would likely not hold up in court, even if bar owners must agree when they receive their liquor license that they will respect all village ordinances.

"Although there are laws out there regulating gambling advertising in certain states, there is also this idea that if the underlying activity is legal then advertising about that activity is legal because you're not aiding and abetting any illegal act," Healey said.  

He pointed to the 1999 Supreme Court case, the Greater New Orleans Broadcasting Association versus the United States, which found that gambling advertisements were legal and protected under the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech. 

"Commercial speech is subject to a lower level of protection, but that doesn't mean it's completely unprotected," Healey said, adding: "Here, the underlying activity appears to have been blessed by the municipality but the speech about it runs afoul of this regulation. That could be a challenge to fight to win but I believe it would be winnable." 

CONTACT: ntepper@wjinc.com 

Reader Comments

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Steven Backman  

Posted: October 5th, 2018 10:39 AM

Mr. Sorice, I would like to apologize to you and Pam for my post from Wednesday. I indeed stated false information about you recutting your signs. Your post caused me to take another look at your signs. Just this morning, I counted the bricks below the north sign and you were right, they were not recut and they are still too big. Looks like 8 or 9 square feet, the law allows 6. You scoffing the political sign laws just tells me that you will likely scoff at the gambling sign laws should video gambling survive the vote. With you owning 5 or 6 bars, that's a lot of tacky signs.

Jordan Kuehn from Forest Park  

Posted: October 5th, 2018 1:24 AM

Mr. Sorice, you use the word "our". However at the event the "grow" group hosted you were not invited to speak or even represent the team despite being present and shaking hands with everyone. Couldn't even say hi to me. Are you part of this group or aren't you?

Jerry Webster  

Posted: October 4th, 2018 2:05 PM

Guy's as of 11:00 this morning the North facing sign at Doc's is still not in compliance, maybe that has chanced by now but I doubt it. You guys are all about what you can get away with and you want people to trust you, wow.

Jerry Webster  

Posted: October 4th, 2018 11:08 AM

Robert and Martin, since everyone using the large signs did not reduce them last week I find your statements a little hard to believe, why would two place reduce their signs and no one else. Do you have two organization using the same signs? This sounds like the same horse manure you guys have spread for years. I am going to check my grass to see if it's greener yet.

Martin M. Sorice Senior  

Posted: October 4th, 2018 10:56 AM

One of my least favorite things about doing business in Forest Park is answering false charges. As soon as we knew that some of our signage was not in compliance we corrected it immediately. There was no second correction needed.

Robert Creason  

Posted: October 4th, 2018 10:52 AM

My understanding in regards to the signage at Doc Ryan's was once they found out the signage was out of compliance they immediately fixed them and that they fixed it correctly the first time and didn't have to do it a second time.

Steven Backman  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 4:41 PM

Mr. Watts, yes back in the day there were large campaign signs but in the 2015 local election, all candidates abided by the current sign ordinance. Mayoral candidate Chris Harris accidentally ordered signs measuring 4 x 3 so in order to comply with the ordinance, he cut them in half and displayed each half for a total of 2 signs per property, maintaining the spirit and letter of the law.

Steven Backman  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 4:30 PM

Pam, let me clarify what Jerry is talking about. The signs at Doc's we're initially cut down last week but not enough to meet the ordinance. It appears over the last day or so they have been cut down again, this time correctly.

Jerry Webster  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 1:21 PM

Pam, as usual you are the one who can't get her facts straight. She interviewed myself and Mr. Watts to get both sides of the sign issue. When the village attorney would not speak with her she found an attorney who deals with these issue and got his opinion. The only mistake she made is she didn't run it past you so you could tell her what she did wrong. As I stated earlier check out Doc Ryan's second floor, 2 signs over the legal limit. The large signs lasted one election cycle because nobody wanted them and FP was one of the last towns to limit the size unless you include billboards which no one does. I wish she would write an anti VG article but she won't even though in the past the Review did support anti VG. The only one who needs to check facts is you. I need to check my grass to see if it is greener.

Pam Fontana  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 12:36 PM

Why are you using old information. I believe the bar owners made the signs compliant as soon as they were told that the signs that past politicians were allowed to use forever, were not really allowed. Maybe you actually need to get out and check for yourself before publishing an obviously anti gaming 'article'.

Jerry Webster  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 10:33 AM

excuse me, meant Watts

Jerry Webster  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 10:32 AM

Check out Doc Ryan's and you will see how concerned they are about sign ordinances, second level 2 signs. What have you to say about that Mr. Wells.

Jordan Kuehn from Forest Park  

Posted: October 3rd, 2018 5:32 AM

The gaming bars can't even obey campaign signage laws. Is anyone seriously convinced that they will first abide by the existing ordinance and second not challenge it in court? I've got a bridge to sell you if you do.

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