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Protest in the Poconos

A Vietnam Veteran fights for free speech in his hometown.
 
 
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Fred D'Amato lives in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, and he thought he had the right of free speech there.

So he put up a sign on his front lawn in early September that read: "Support Our Troops, Impeach Bush Admin." It's personal for D'Amato. His son, Chris, was supposed to graduate from Penn State this year, "but now we don't know when he'll graduate." Chris is in the reserves, and he's serving in Iraq right now. Morale "is not very good at all," his father says, on the basis of Chris's e-mails home.

What got Fred D'Amato boiling mad was when President Bush extended the term of duty for reservists in Iraq from one year to as much as eighteen months. "We tried calling up different politicians, but we got no answer from them, so I put up the sign," says D'Amato. He displayed the sign, two-feet wide by four-feet high, in front of a large American flag.

According to the Pocono Record, one local resident of this city of 3,000 complained to Borough Councilman Francis O'Boyle, who instructed the zoning officer to look into the matter. "The last couple of words is what's the problem," O'Boyle told the Pocono Record. "I don't think it's right to put a sign up like that and say those things. But it's up to the zoning officer." Reached by The Progressive, O'Boyle said: "I'm not making any comments."

Joseph W. Brady, zoning officer for the Mount Pocono Borough, wrote a letter to Mr. and Mrs. D'Amato, dated September 22, telling them that the sign was "illegal." Wrote Brady: "This sign must be removed immediately upon receipt of this letter, otherwise the Borough will be seeking Enforcement Remedies. . . . These penalties call for fines of up to $500 a day plus all court costs, including reasonable attorney fees. We ask your cooperation in removing this sign. If you wish to display a sign on your property, the necessary permits must be obtained. Of course this sign must meet all Borough Ordinances."

As soon as he opened the letter, D'Amato called his wife at work. "She said to take it down immediately because we can't afford the $500 fine," he recalls. "I took it down for one day."

He did not like the feeling of being gagged. "I felt angry and frustrated," he said. "It was definitely eliminating my free speech."

Two neighbors he walks the dogs with in the mornings convinced him to put the sign back up. "It's up right now, and there's no way it's coming down," he says. He also found three lawyers to work pro-bono on his case and to put pressure on the city.

The Mount Pocono Borough has backed off, in part because of the bad publicity the story has generated. The Pocono Record wrote two critical editorials and a scathing column about the censorship, and AP picked up the original story.

At a public meeting on October 6, Mount Pocono's lawyer, James Fareri, announced that the borough would suspend enforcement of the ordinance. "I said I would announce at the next meeting what my recommendation will be," he told The Progressive. "And my recommendation will be that this is a permissible sign subject to reasonable regulations as to the size and the placement and possibly the duration. At the end of the day, this guy is going to be allowed to have his sign."

Fareri said that Mount Pocono had taken a model ordinance (developed by the Pocono Mountains Chamber of Commerce, according to the Pocono Record), but that ordinance did not explicitly address signs of this type. "The zoning officer, who is not a constitutional scholar, was just trying to do his job," Fareri says.

John Finnerty, borough council president, agrees that D'Amato "should be able to have that sign up. It's just a matter of determining what's allowed in our ordinance. All signs need a permit. For aesthetic reasons," he says.

D'Amato has applied for a permit, though it galls him to have to do so. "You shouldn't need a permit to do something that's granted to you by the Constitution," D'Amato says.

D'Amato, a Vietnam vet, has no prior experience in protests. "This is all new to me," he says. But the controversy in Mount Pocono seems to have lit a fire under him. He's expecting to attend the anti-war rally on October 25 in Washington, D.C. "This will be my first big protest," he says. "Tell the President we don't want this war. Bring our troops home. If it goes on, it'll be like Vietnam again."

As for his own story, D'Amato provides the moral: "You can fight city hall and win. And the First Amendment: You can't beat that."