Republican voters in Des Moines County have been targeted for their political views through sign theft and vandalism, as well as letters.
In the shadow COVID-19 has cast across America lurks another problem, sinister because it is the product of humans wishing to harm others.
We're talking political yard sign looting.
Theft and disfigurement of political yard signs is a clear signal that opposing political viewpoints are not fortifying America's belief in the First Amendment.
The short view is this: You have the right to freedom of expression. You do not have the right to trespass or steal.
Political bannering goes back to John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the U.S., who, according to a blog by the Municipal Supply & Sign Co. in Florida, "wanted to get an edge on his opponent in his presidential campaign run and convinced townspeople to put up his signs in their yards."
However, the blog goes on to clarify, Adams was not the original inventor of political signs that dates back to Ancient Rome.
"In those days," the blog says, "scribbles on walls were the form of advertising they used for political purposes."
Things haven't changed much in the past 2,000 years.
In our modern times, Democrats and Republicansare still scribbling, but now the medium is a flat paper or plastic rectangle about 18 by 24 inches, supported by a wire or wooden stake and planted in a voter's yard.
This year's contentious presidential election has polarized, galvanized and insanitized Americans into doing something they'd never consider in saner times: trespassing on a stranger's property to steal or vandalize private property.
The Washington Post reported last month that in the key state of Pennsylvania, former Vice President Joe Biden is getting hit hard.
"It usually happens in the dark of night, local Democrats say, but sometimes in daylight," the Post said. "Sometimes entire streets or neighborhoods are cleared."
President Donald Trump is getting hit, too: The Boston Globe said, "The Trump yard sign-stealing epidemic has gotten seriously out-of-hand in Massachusetts."
Here in Southeast Iowa, examples of sign theft can be found easily by asking someone pushing a cart in your local grocery store: Hey, stranger, have you had any political yard signs stolen this year?
Or just get on Facebook and you'll find plenty of mis/information.
But is sign theft rampant in Southeast Iowa? In Des Moines County, officials harbor widely differing views on the magnitude of sign raiding.
Terry Davis, chairman of the Des Moines County Republicans, said they've had to replace about 50 signs in the past 45 days.
"They deface signs at night, mainly the barn signs the 4-by-8s," Davis said. "There's an individual who lives on Sunnyside, he's a friend of mine; they've defaced his sign with vulgar language. They're a block and a half from the school. I'm ashamed of the people in Burlington who would stoop that low."
Aldo Leopold Intermediary School is just up the street from the defaced Trump sign, and youths tramp back and forth where the obscenities are easily seen.
Davis said the sign's homeowner has had a lot of people stopping by to sympathize offer to paint the sign and helpanyway they can.
"We all have different views, but to do what whoever's doing, it's a disgrace," Davis said.
Tom Courtney, co-chair of the Des Moines County Democrats, said sign theft is, for his party, insignificant.
"I'm talking about Biden," Courtney said. "Now and then, somebody will say, 'Oh, I had my Biden sign stolen,' but I think usually it's the weather did it. You have signs that've been out there a while, you get a windy day and they blow right out and it'll twist 'em all up. I'm sure people throw them in the garbage if they're all twisted up."
He said he thinks kids are the main culprits, not political vigilantes.
"I don't think there's very many adults who do it," he said. "It's a good target for kids."
Courtney and Davis may be political opposites, but they agree on at least one thing.
"I think it's poor taste to do it anywhere," Courtney said.
Sheriff Mike Johnstone said yard sign pilferage isn't really an issue in rural parts of Des Moines County.
"It's normal to have a few come up misplaced or missing, but no, we haven't had any marked vandalism towards any political party or candidate, so we're all happy about that," Johnstone said. "It seems like most everybody is leaving them alone."
He said yard owners themselves often are culpable.
"A lot of times you'll find one missing because they've pulled them up to cut the grass," Johnstone said.
Johnstone agreed with Courtney that most of the thefts are likely by youths.
"It's kind of a Halloween thing. I can't see any particular candidate being picked on at all. If they are, people aren't calling and complaining," Johnstone said. "It's pretty normal for all candidates: they've got a few missing here or there."
County engineer Brian Carter said one problem is political signs being planted on county road easements.
"That's true for most presidential elections, but maybe a little more common this year," Carter said. "They aren't allowed in the right-of-way, but as long as they don't create a safety hazard, we don't get involved."
A typical example of a voting victim in the middle of the political spectrum is retired Army Master Sgt. Elizabeth van Vleck-Sally, who lives in Burlington and doesn't do Facebook.
"I'm an independent," van Vleck-Sally said. "I have Kevin Glendening and Miller-Meeks she's a friend of mine and Joni Ernst and the Trump-Pence sign. Its the Trump-Pence sign that seems to set everybody off."
Her Trump sign was stolen recently, so she called the police. As an officer was interviewing her, a man stopped his car in the middle of the street.
"He got out of the car and yelled at me: Are you talking to him about your sign being stolen? And I said, yes," van Vleck-Sally said. "He says, 'Im headed on over to the Republican headquarters to get some more; do you want me pick you up one, too? And he did."
The 78-year-old woman has been taking no chances since then that sign goes indoors every night.
Like many Trump fans, van Vleck-Sally has received anonymous letters in the mail. Disguised as legitimate campaign material, they start out with a tirade against president Trump before slithering into insults against the recipient.
"I got a letter from Jane Doe, 123 Main St. So I went out on my front yard and opened it you never know what's inside those letters," van Vleck-Sally said. "It was all this horrible stuff about Trump. But then when it got down to the bottom, I became a 'disgusting, stupid person' and they started bashing me."
One of the letters she received says, ungrammatically, "Take a hard look at yourself and fix this unfortunate mess you are." The second one begins, "If you just throw this message away without reading and thinking about it you are a horrible human being, a despicable United States of America citizen" before going on to mis-name "Robert Barr" as the current U.S. attorney general.
The third letter carbon-copies the same anti-Trump opinions as the first two.
"I'm an old timer, I believe sticks and stones will break my bones type stuff," van Vleck-Sally said.
She thinks the letter writer/s got her address from the Des Moines County GIS mapping website. A GIS geographic information system is a computer system for manipulating data related to positions on Earth's surface.GIScan show different kinds of data on onemap, including streets, buildingsand vegetation. Most counties in the U.S. use GIS.
"The concern I have with people using the GIS to find out who a person is and sending them nasty letters is basically what I wrote to The Hawk Eye a letter to the person sending me the letters," van Vleck-Sallysaid. "I don't give a crap where he got my name, he got my name completely wrong. People have a tendency to call me Sally. They think Sally is my first name. They're not looking very hard."
Van Vleck-Sally sent a letter to Des Moines County supervisor Tom Broeker, who introduced it at the supervisors meeting this past Tuesday.
"I received a letter from I'm not going to use any names with concerns that people were using the county GIS website to get contact information on people with political signs in their yards, and then sending anonymous letters to those residents," Broeker said. "I really hope this isn't 'happening. I'm aware that the First Amendment doesn't enjoy the widespread support it once held, but this is the United States of America; the people with whom one may disagree have the same constitutional rights to express their political opinions as everyone else. If you're aware of anybody that does this, please discourage this."
Burlington Mayor Jon Billups agreed.
"I would like to think we are still the land of the free, andthat the First Amendment still applies to all," Billups said. "It is criminal that lawns signs are stolen or defaced regardless of who they support."
"I can vote for whoever I damn well please, thats my right," van Vleck-Sally said.
Van Vleck-Sally's letter to the newspaper was intended for "Jane Doe" to read; it said, in part, "I am not an unfortunate mess, as you state in your letter. I am a citizen who has the same rights as everyone else to voice my opinion and display signs in my own yard."
"I tried to be as polite as I could, reminding this person, whoever it is, that everybody has a right to do whatever they want to do," van Vleck-Sally said. "It's my right to vote for whoever I want to vote for, without having to worry about getting nasty letters. How many other people has this person done this to? Its just not just me. It could have been a lot of people."
Van Vleck-Sally said her neighbor posted one of the letters on Facebook.
"There's a whole bunch of people said she deserved it," van Vleck-Sallysaid. "And there's a whole bunch of people that said, 'Oh, we feel so sorry for you.' Don't feel sorry for me. Just try to stop this idiot."
She said it's not just Trump people who are targeted; its everybody.
"Come on, folks, grow up," the septuagenarian chided.
The local police say yard sign pilfering isn't a major concern in these COVID-19-riddled days.
Burlington police officer Grant Hillyer said yard sign theft is a simple misdemeanor that would result in a citation with a court date, just like a speeding ticket. Any fine would be up to the judge, ranging from $65 to $500.
"Being outside, it's a little bit tougher to prove," Hillyer said. "Charges can be pressed, but as far as going to jail right now? It's not going to happen."
That's because of COVID-19 and social distancing mandates, which would be too difficult to enforce in a jail overflowing with sign bandits.
More: Man steals Biden yard sign is then caught stealing newspapers detailing his theft
Des Moines CountyAttorney Lisa Schaefer said criminal trespass under Iowa Code 716.7 and 716.8 is generally a simple misdemeanor punishable with a fine of $260 for the first offense, $645 for the second offense and $1,285 for a third or subsequent offense.If the trespass results in injury or damage of more than $300, the penalties increase.
"Degree of theft under Iowa Code 714.1 and 714.2 depends upon the value of the property," Schaefer said. "If the value is undetermined or is under $300, then it is a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in the county jail and/or a fine of $105 to $855 and any applicable restitution."
Depending on value, the charge and fine can go as high as aggravated misdemeanor, with up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of $8,540, plus any applicable restitution.
Criminal mischief can be defined as a hate crime if it is committed against a person or a persons property because of the persons race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin,political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability,
Schaefer said if letters are sent intending to intimidate, alarm or annoy another person, without any threats of physical harm, it's considered third-degree harassment, punishable by up to one year in the county jail and/or a fine of $430 to $2,560, and any applicable restitution.
All sources contacted said if you plan to put out a campaign yard sign, the best way to protect it is by keeping it in a well-lit area, close to your home.
"Unless they have trail cams, or some kind of security system that would monitor the location of the sign, there's not much they can do," Davis advised.
Motion-activated cameras range in price from $20 for a battery-powered pet camera to almost $1,000 for a multi-camera night vision system with a huge hard drive. Be sure the storage media is removable and easily interfaced with a device other than the camera; a computer, for example. You'll want to give incriminating video to the police.
Be sure to write your name on the sign: If you nab someone on-camera, it can be tricky proving the yard sign they stole is actually yours.
Americans are an innovative herd, and here are some of the things recommended on social media in order to discourage political hijackers.
The Washington Post offered this nugget:
We put barbed wire around them and push pins in the plastic just to keep the signs from being taken because we have cameras so we can watch them run out and grab the signs," Bowling Green, Kentucky, Trump supporter Mario Dominguez told the Post after having four previous signs stolen.
The Boston Globe's Boston.com said in November, "An Andover residents property was swarmed by police in response to a suspicious-looking black box taped to his handmade Trump sign."
More than one online posting takes the Second Amendment approach, but that's extreme for something as harmless as a one-dollar piece of cardboard with a political statement.
Van Vleck-Sally cautions against the lock-n-load approach.
"I have a carry permit, but that doesn't mean I can shoot people," the pistol-packing grandmother said.
Possibly the cleverest sign-theft deterrent was by an Indiana man who mowed his lawn to read "TRUMP" in large block letters.
So, what's your duty here as an American? Steal opposing signs? Tear them down? Paint vulgarities upon someone else's signs?
Don't be ridiculous: Your duty as an American citizen is to express your political beliefs, and if someone harasses you for what you believe politically, dutifully report them.
Trespassing and property theft are crimes. Posting your views online or in your local newspaper is not a crime.
- I'm a First Amendment scholar and I think Big Tech should be left alone - The Conversation US - January 23rd, 2021
- Letter to the editor: Put the First Amendment first - Daily Mississippian - January 23rd, 2021
- Napolitano: Does the First Amendment restrain Big Tech? - Daily Herald - January 23rd, 2021
- Do Critics of Police Have the First Amendment Procedural Protections That Nazis Get? - Reason - January 23rd, 2021
- Ask the expert: The First Amendment and free speech - MSUToday - January 23rd, 2021
- Letter: To everyone, including friends and family members, who feel First Amendment rights are being denied - Sumter Item - January 23rd, 2021
- Knight Institute Urges Supreme Court To Preserve Ruling That Trump Violated First Amendment 01/25/2021 - MediaPost Communications - January 23rd, 2021
- Do Social Media Companies Have Too Much Power Over The First Amendment? - WFAE - January 23rd, 2021
- What the First Amendment Really Says About Whether Trump Incited the Capitol Riot - Slate - January 23rd, 2021
- Ask the Lawyer: There is no First Amendment right to social media use - The Oakland Press - January 23rd, 2021
- Permit Requirements for Filming in National Parks Violate First Amendment - Reason - January 23rd, 2021
- Does the First Amendment protect you on social media? - RADIO.COM - January 23rd, 2021
- Simpson sues Board of Elections, claims dismissal violated First Amendment rights - Greensboro News & Record - January 23rd, 2021
- What does the day after Section 230 reform look like? - Brookings Institution - January 23rd, 2021
- Twitter and Facebook Just Proved That Deplatforming Works - The Nation - January 23rd, 2021
- Afternoon Briefs: SCOTUS will consider cheerleader's First Amendment case; former AG dies at 88 - ABA Journal - January 5th, 2021
- No Blanket Protection for Internet Platforms - The Wall Street Journal - January 5th, 2021
- Walsh Vetoes Ordinance That Would Restrict Police Use Of Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets - WBUR - January 5th, 2021
- Happy new and old year: 2020 just won't go away when it comes to first amendment issues in 2021 - Hopkinsville Kentucky New Era - January 5th, 2021
- Far-Right VA State Senator Claims huge victory for the First Amendment and for open access to government for all Virginians. Except That the Court... - January 5th, 2021
- Will You Save Money On Hospital Bills With New Price Transparency Rule? : Shots - Health News - NPR - January 5th, 2021
- "I am asking Washingtonians and those who live in the region to stay out of the downtown area on Tuesday and Wednesday and not to engage with... - January 5th, 2021
- Julian Assange Extradition to U.S. Blocked Over Mental Health Concerns - The New York Times - January 5th, 2021
- The First Amendment is under siege and most Americans know it - The Central New York Business Journal - December 30th, 2020
- First Circuit Creates Exception To Massachusetts Wiretap Statute Based On First Amendment Rights, Allows Citizens And Press To Record Police Activity... - December 30th, 2020
- First Circuit Appeals Court Reaffirms Its 2011 Decision: The First Amendment Protects The Recording Of Cops - Techdirt - December 30th, 2020
- New Year's Eve In The Year Of The Coronavirus - The Rhino Times of Greensboro - The Rhino TImes - December 30th, 2020
- On Religion: COVID was year's top religion story. But which story? - Tahlequah Daily Press - December 30th, 2020
- How Lin Wood Became a Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theorist - The New York Times - December 30th, 2020
- The Year That Changed the Internet - The Atlantic - December 30th, 2020
- Section 230 Isn't A Subsidy; It's A Rule Of Civil Procedure - Techdirt - December 30th, 2020
- 7 Recommendations for the New Year - Contracting Business - December 30th, 2020
- Smith: Small steps to bring hope and wonder - The Register-Guard - December 30th, 2020
- Court Enjoins Enforcement of Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping Executive Order for Federal Contractors and Grantees - JD Supra - December 30th, 2020
- COOMBES: Put the First Amendment first - University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily - October 12th, 2020
- Did the First Amendment to the Constitution lay the foundation for an authoritarian state? - The Indian Express - October 12th, 2020
- First Amendment Right to Record Child-Protection Visit to Your Home - Reason - October 12th, 2020
- First Amendment scholars weigh in on legality of Terminal Tower Biden Harris light display - cleveland.com - October 12th, 2020
- Use of Trademarks in Creative Works & Lanham Act Liability - The National Law Review - October 12th, 2020
- 'Introduction to the First Amendment Museum' topic of presentation - Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel - October 12th, 2020
- Judge amy coney barrett and the First Amendment - Lexology - October 12th, 2020
- A vote for Trump is a vote against the First Amendment - Poughkeepsie Journal - October 12th, 2020
- Trump Admin. Says First Amendment Is Moot In WeChat Case - Law360 - October 12th, 2020
- You Shouldn't Get Sued for Petitioning the Government - Cato Institute - October 12th, 2020
- Reporters Committee welcomes Inasmuch Foundation Legal Fellow - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - October 12th, 2020
- FIRST 5: Trump and COVID-19 -- How 'free' are/should we be? - Salina Post - October 12th, 2020
- Letters to the Editor: The First Amendment in Rio Rancho - Albuquerque Journal - September 21st, 2020
- Texas A&M University Introduces First Amendment Website - Texas A&M University Today - September 21st, 2020
- Attorney on first amendment rights of protesters: The government must protect these rights - RochesterFirst - September 21st, 2020
- Polk County GOP chairperson gathering signatures in support of a Second Amendment Designated County - Grand Forks Herald - September 21st, 2020
- Health officials urge people who attended Trump rally on Saturday to get tested for coronavirus - The Fayetteville Observer - September 21st, 2020
- Potsdam 'toilet gardens' will stay, for now, as federal judge grants injunction in toilet case - NNY360 - September 21st, 2020
- This Week at The Ninth: Informational Injury and Union Dues - JD Supra - September 21st, 2020
- Even with a Recent Lag, Special Interest PACs Enjoy Big Fundraising Edge Over Parties - InsiderNJ - September 21st, 2020
- Readers respond: Racists coming out of the woodwork - oregonlive.com - September 21st, 2020
- WeChat and TikTok Sanctions Not to Came Into Effect Yesterday - JD Supra - September 21st, 2020
- The Oklahoma Meat Consumer Protection Act is Meat Lobby's Response to the Increased Consumer Demand for Plant-Based Options - vegconomist - the vegan... - September 21st, 2020
- Army esports team denies accusations of violating First Amendment, offering fake giveaways - ArmyTimes.com - July 21st, 2020
- FIRST FIVE: Fighting over the meaning of First Amendment freedoms - hays Post - July 21st, 2020
- My View: In Provincetown, strange views of the First Amendment - Wicked Local Provincetown - July 21st, 2020
- John Bolton Gambles That Constitution Will Save Profits on Book That Was Embarrassing to the President - Law & Crime - July 21st, 2020
- Second Circuit Wrecks All Sorts Of First Amendment Protections To Keep Lawsuit Against Joy Reid Alive - Techdirt - July 21st, 2020
- Editorial A flushtrated community: Potsdam trampling on First Amendment rights of toilet artist - NNY360 - July 21st, 2020
- This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: July 19, 2020 - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - July 21st, 2020
- Churchill: Troy preacher has the right to offend - Times Union - July 21st, 2020
- More conferences cancel fall sports and other COVID-19 news - Inside Higher Ed - July 21st, 2020
- First Amendment on the street | Opinion | dailyitem.com - Sunbury Daily Item - June 30th, 2020
- Taking a cellphone video of police? Theres a First Amendment for that - Seattle Times - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment Bars California from Requiring a Proposition 65 Glyphosate Warning - JD Supra - June 30th, 2020
- Read the First Amendment | Letters To The Editor - The Central Virginian - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment right to protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville - The Florida Times-Union - June 30th, 2020
- Pence says First Amendment is why Trump campaign held Tulsa rally despite local health officials' warnings - Yahoo News - June 30th, 2020
- Supreme Court hands win to religious schools | TheHill - The Hill - June 30th, 2020
- Letter to the Editor: Remember and Defend the First Amendment - Dana Point Times - June 20th, 2020
- Another look at the First Amendment | Opinion - Franklin News Post - June 20th, 2020
- Death threats protected by First Amendment, attorney says - Alpena News - June 20th, 2020
- Really Pathetic: First Amendment Expert Torches DOJ Efforts to Stop John Bolton Book - Law & Crime - June 20th, 2020
- The First Amendment protects attorneys from compelled speech | TheHill - The Hill - June 17th, 2020
- Protesters are protected by the First Amendment and will not be cited any violations if they remain peaceful - WATN - Local 24 - June 17th, 2020
- Dear Journal: That's some amendment, that First Amendment; let's use it - The Daily World - June 17th, 2020