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Political Signs Ignite Debate On First Amendment Freedoms

Signs posted on private property along Highway 93 are igniting debate about the boundaries of free speech.
Nicky Ouellet
Montana Public Radio
Signs posted on private property along Highway 93 are igniting debate about the boundaries of free speech.

A cluster of political signs outside Lakeside has sparked debate about the boundaries of free speech.

Driving around her hometown of Kalispell, Valeri Walden McGarvey sees a lot of campaign signs for various candidates. She first noticed the signs near Lakeside at the end of the summer on a grocery run from her house on Flathead Lake. They’re posted on an empty field abutting the southbound lane of Highway 93.

One says, “Proud member of the deplorables.” Another, “Hillary the witch.”

"The one that caught my eye was the one that said, 'Trump that bitch,'" she says.

McGarvey was one of seven people who wrote letters to the editor in the Daily Interlake about the signs in the past four weeks.

"I have nothing against a person putting signs up on their property at all," she says. "It's a free country. My objection was the word, and how divisive and ugly that word is."

Most of the letters ask Ron Erickson, the person who posted the signs, to take down the ones with offensive language. But at least one person wrote in support.

“This is an exercise of freedom of speech and freedom of print,” Alison Siegel of Lakeside wrote. Siegel added that anyone who vandalizes the signs is breaking the law.

At one point, one of the pro-Trump signs hung on the state-maintained right of way, which is against state rules. Erickson moved the sign when asked by the Montana Department of Transportation. Since then, new signs have popped up on his property.

Erickson also sent a letter to the editor -- he could not be reached for comment. He wrote his signs are no worse than Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton calling half of the people who support Republican nominee Donald Trump “deplorable.”

In his letter, Erickson wrote: “I rest my case, and the sign is on private property and the more people that mess with the sign, another sign is going up.”

But Valeri McGarvey, who agrees Clinton’s name-calling was just a nicer way of being nasty, says the word Erickson chose is loaded.

"For me it has a very visceral feeling of disrespect, and I don't think that we need to go there in our public political discourse," she says.

Part of the reason she wrote her letter was because her grandchildren saw the signs, and asked what they meant. McGarvey says that’s not how we should speak to each other in this country.

"I felt like I tried to do the right thing by writing a letter and saying, 'can't we do this in a more civil way,?'" she says, "but it seems all it did was provoke a larger sign."

That larger sign says, “Liberalism is a sign of mental illness.”

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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