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."