For years, Newtonville’s Martina Jackson put her politics out for all to see. The longtime Democratic campaigner’s front-yard signs are a “who’s who” display of state and national issues.
But last year, city officials said they received a complaint about the signs, which include messages supporting Black Lives Matter and welcoming immigrants, as well as backing politicians such as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Ed Markey.
The signs violated a local ordinance and had to go, officials said. If they stayed put, she and her husband, Daniel, faced up to a $300-per-day fine, and a potential criminal court complaint, according to the city’s written order to remove the signs.
Now those yard signs are at the center of a Middlesex Superior Court suit filed by the Jacksons against the city of Newton, which currently imposes limits on when — and for how long — signs with political messages may be displayed.
“I feel very strongly about freedom of speech and freedom of expression rights on my private property,” Martina Jackson said in an interview. She said the city’s ordinance “is inherently a violation of freedom of speech and expression.”
The city has rescinded the order against the Jacksons, and a city spokeswoman said Monday that officials are working on a new proposed sign ordinance. In January, a city attorney told a group of city councilors that the current regulation is unconstitutional.
Nearly 50 cities and towns in Greater Boston curb when — and for how long — such signs are allowed on private property, according to a Globe review of local ordinances. Some communities, including Newton and Malden, go further and prohibit obscene language on signs.
Most of the communities refer to “political signs” in their local laws, while some, including Newton, use the term “election signs.” Malden’s regulations refer to “personal expression signs.”
Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz distinguished professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, warned that such regulations violate the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
“If an ordinance says no political signs, or political signs only [within] 30 days of an election, or an ordinance says, ‘no signs with vulgarities,’ that is unconstitutional,” Volokh said in a phone interview.
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said political speech “is at the very top of the spectrum of protection” under the Constitution.
”Under the First Amendment, they as government officials should not be in a position where they’re deciding what is, or is not, permissible speech,” Silverman said.
“I feel very strongly about freedom of speech and freedom of expression rights on my private property.”
Courts have long upheld people’s right to post signs with political messages on their property. In a 1994 Supreme Court decision, the court struck down as unconstitutional a Missouri community’s rule prohibiting homeowners from displaying many kinds of signs.
In 2019, a Holyoke regulation that placed restrictions on lawn signs displayed on private property was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Boston.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts challenged the Holyoke regulation in court, and that same year, released an open letter to cities and towns urging them to scrap similar ordinances.
Ruth Bourquin, the organization’s senior and managing attorney, said that even with social media and the Internet, a yard sign with a political message remains an important way to communicate.
“Expressing one’s views from one’s own home is one of the most fundamental ways people can express their views on political and social matters,” Bourquin said in an interview.
In 2015, the town of Concord ordered a local family to remove a “Black Lives Matter” sign they posted on a strip of town-owned land in front of their home. Concord had a regulation that controlled the display of political signs on town-owned land. Following widespread public criticism, Town Meeting removed the rule the following year.
In a recent Globe interview, Johnny Cole said his family has continued to display a “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of their Concord home.
“Putting a sign up like that is a way to say, ‘We are going to put our values out in front, so that people know where we stand,’ ” Cole said.
Not everyone believes cities and towns have no role in determining what is acceptable speech in public spaces.
Malden Mayor Gary J. Christenson defended his city’s regulations for “personal expression signs,” which may not be displayed longer than 60 days per year. Malden also prohibits signs with obscene or pornographic subjects — and the city itself determines what is allowed, according to its regulations.
The city aims to protect the rights of all residents, including parents who don’t want to expose their children to some language, according to Christenson.
With his response to the Globe, Christenson included a photograph of a sign displayed outside a Malden residence that criticized President Biden along with a series of expletives.
“There are certain words which are inarguably obscene,” Christenson said. “Personal expression is not regulated, obscenities are.”
In Winthrop, Terence Delehanty, who serves as police chief and acting town manager, said the town suspended enforcement of its sign regulations due to free speech concerns.
‘“I think the First Amendment is the most important amendment and it should be saved and it should be preserved. People who don’t stand up for it are going to lose it.”’
Joe Casieri, a Plymouth resident ordered by the town to remove his signs criticizing President Biden.
Plymouth is now working to eliminate its political sign regulations, after the state’s ACLU branch interceded last year in a case where the town ordered resident Joe Casieri to remove signs critical of Biden. The town’s rules at the time limited when signs could be displayed, and prohibited “insulting” language in public areas.
Casieri, in an interview, said that after the town ordered the signs removed, he contacted his attorneys and the local ACLU. The organization, in an open letter, called on the town to repeal those regulations.
“Residents have a constitutional right to post signs on their own property expressing their political views,” according to the letter.
Plymouth’s Town Meeting is expected to vote on changes to its sign ordinance in April, according to Lee Hartmann, the acting town manager. Plymouth dropped its prohibition against insulting language last fall.
Casieri said he currently displays a sign that criticizes Biden outside his home.
“I think the First Amendment is the most important amendment and it should be saved and it should be preserved,” Casieri said. “People who don’t stand up for it are going to lose it.”
In Newton, Jackson said she kept her yard signs up to reflect the work it took to achieve campaign victories in 2020, particularly Biden’s presidential win.
“Democracy is absolutely crucial and worth fighting for, and that sign seemed, to us, such a validation of our beliefs and our efforts,” Jackson said.
The city’s ordinance regarding “election signs” allows people to display them no sooner than 45 days before an election, and they must be removed within a week after the vote.
Newton’s election sign regulation — including the time restriction — was included in the city’s Candidate Guide for its 2021 municipal election.
”Yes, election signs are authorized in residential districts, however they are strictly regulated,” the guide said.
The “municipal law community” has understood there are First Amendment issues regarding election sign ordinances, Maura O’Keefe, then a Newton assistant city solicitor, told city councilors in a January meeting.
The 2015 Supreme Court decision supported the Newton Law Department’s contention that the city’s “sign ordinance was indeed unconstitutional,” O’Keefe said. The city attempted to replace the ordinance in 2018, but the measure was never adopted.
Jackson said she and her husband were ordered to remove their signs twice under the ordinance in 2021, after the city received a written complaint. They received a verbal order May 6 from a city official who visited their home, and a written “notice of violation” dated June 28 that ordered removal of the signs.
The couple moved to defend themselves on free speech grounds, but the city abruptly changed course. The removal order was rescinded Aug. 6, according to the city, but Jackson said the city didn’t clear them of violating the ordinance. And when the city zoning board declined to hear their appeal in September, it did not address the First Amendment issues.
Peter Harrington, an attorney representing the couple, told the board: “The Jacksons have the right to have their name cleared.”
The Jacksons’ complaint, which was filed in November, asks the court to require Newton’s zoning board to hear their appeal. Meanwhile, their signs remain in place outside their home.
Newton’s Planning Department, in consultation with the Law Department, is working on a new proposed sign ordinance to be docketed as its own zoning amendment, according to Ellen Ishkanian, a city spokeswoman.
“The City is only aware of one enforcement effort of the election sign ordinance since the 2015 Reed decision, which was subsequently rescinded,” Ishkanian said in a statement.
On a recent weekday morning, yard signs were visible outside several homes in Newton. Some signs backed Black Lives Matter, others had messages of support for firefighters and law enforcement officers.
Silverman, with the First Amendment Coalition, said that generally, governments shouldn’t be setting the rules for free speech.
“If there is a bedrock principle to the First Amendment, it’s that government should not be determining for us what is offensive, what is vulgar, and what speech should not be said,” Silverman said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.