GOSHEN — A Goshen woman known for the many political signs filling her front yard along South Main Street is now facing a lawsuit from the city for alleged zoning ordinance violations.
Lori Arnold, who has lived in her 615 S. Main St. house for more than 20 years, began her solo protest in mid-June as a response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that rose up nationally after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in May.
Arnold, who considers herself an Independent, said she stayed up nights watching unrest unfold, including coverage of rioting and looting, on TV news programs. She expected the demonstrations to end after a couple days, but they continued on for weeks.
Feeling moved to act, Arnold decided to put out a Blue Lives Matter sign in support of the nation’s police. Additional signs would soon follow, with later signs expressing opposition to the Black Lives Matter organization, support for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and support for the re-election of President Donald Trump.
While her one-woman protest has resulted in no small amount of confrontation and discourse throughout the past few months, those same signs and flags in her front yard could now have her facing several thousand dollars in fines — and potentially jail time — should she not comply with the city’s lawsuit.
Filed by the city Nov. 20 in Elkhart Circuit Court, Count I of the lawsuit accuses Arnold of having violated several sections of the city’s zoning ordinance, one of which is Article V, Section 5100.3.A.1, which states that the maximum aggregate area for all signs on a zoning lot, regardless of sign type, shall be no greater than eight square feet.
Also listed as having been violated is Article V, Section 5100.3.A.3, which states that all signs must be located entirely on private property — out of the city’s right of way — and meet required setbacks.
Rounding out the listed violations are Article V, Section 5100.3.A.2 and Article II, Section 2110, which note that ground signs in excess of three feet in height are not permitted.
In response to the violations, the city has requested the court enter a permanent injunction against Arnold requiring that she: remove any and all signs placed in the public right of way in front of her home; remove any other signs necessary to comply with the maximum aggregate area of eight square feet for all signs on the property; and remove any ground signs in excess of three feet in height or otherwise reduce the height of those signs.
Should she fail to abide by the injunction, the lawsuit goes on to note that Arnold could potentially be fined up to $2,500 per day for each violation of the city’s zoning ordinance under Count I.
Under Count II of the lawsuit, Arnold is accused of having violated Goshen City Code Title 6, Article 12, Chapter 3, Section 1(a) by placing signs in the public right of way along South Main Street.
The count also accuses Arnold of refusing to remove the signs she placed in the city’s right of way along South Main Street in front of her property, despite receiving prior notice and requests to do so.
As with Count I, Count II requests that the court enter a permanent injunction against Arnold requiring her to remove any signs located in the public right of way in front of her home, and allows for an additional fine of $500 for each violation of city code.
Rounding out the lawsuit’s request under Count II is that Arnold be required to pay the city’s attorney fees up to $1,000.
FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUE?
Asked her thoughts on the lawsuit during a visit to her house Wednesday afternoon, Arnold said she feels she is being unfairly targeted by the city, its Democratic leadership and a group of primarily young, liberal-leaning residents in an attempt to stifle her right to freedom of speech.
Since starting her protest earlier this year, Arnold said opponents have targeted her with complaints and criminal acts. Signs have been stolen from her property, shot with pellets or BBs, and paintballs have been fired at her property. She’s also had items thrown at her, and signs set on fire.
“I know it’s not all Democrats. But there is a group, and it’s mostly young people, that are doing it,” Arnold said. “I’ve had three arsons. I still have a hole in my window where they broke one of my windows with a rock. I had paint balls shot at my house almost every night during the summer. ... I’ve had so much really bad stuff happen.”
But according to Donald Shuler, the city’s lead attorney on the case, the lawsuit is based strictly on Arnold’s alleged violations of the city zoning ordinance, and has nothing to do with any attempts to stifle her free speech.
“Certainly, the city and code enforcement, whenever we take any action, we’re concerned about what the law states, and making sure that we’re doing things in accordance with both state law and constitutional law,” Shuler said from his office Wednesday afternoon. “To the issue of free speech, nothing about the case has anything to do with the content of what Ms. Arnold’s signs say, or anything of that nature, the viewpoints expressed, etc. It’s completely content-neutral zoning regulation at issue here, and I think the law is pretty clear that those types of regulations pass constitutional muster.
“The ordinance doesn’t say there’s no signs allowed, and it doesn’t say you can’t have signs that say certain things. The signs can say whatever she wants them to say. It just has to do with their placement in the right of way, and the overall amount of aggregate size of the signs on the property,” he added. “So, my perspective on it, and I think the city’s perspective as well, is that we certainly want to protect everybody’s free speech rights. But this isn’t a free speech issue. It’s a zoning ordinance violation and right of way public safety issue.”
NOT BACKING DOWN
Asked Wednesday if she plans on removing or relocating her signs in order to get the lawsuit thrown out, Arnold said she won’t be backing down, even if it means having to go to court to fight the allegations herself.
“I don’t have a lawyer. I don’t have money to fight. But I’ll represent myself in court if I have to,” Arnold said, noting that even if she should lose the fight, and the fines start piling up, she won’t give in, even if it means jail time. “I would go to jail, and I would stay there as long as I need to. It is that important to me. This is my country. I am 100% American. This is my country. I’ve taken a stand, and I’m not backing down.”