Ask ELi: Can Citizens Take Down 'Scammy' Flyers?

Friday, January 18, 2019, 8:56 am
By: 
Casandra Eriksen

An ELi reader wrote in the following question:

I'm wondering if East Lansing has a policy on things like "Work at Home!" or "We buy houses!" signs posted on telephone poles. There's been one on a telephone pole at the entrance to the Hannah Center on Abbot for months now, and recently it's been hanging by just one tack after a windstorm. The other day there were a few posted on the corner of Burcham and Hagadorn. (I'm not talking about "lost dog" signs; I'm talking about the scammy "Earn money working ten hours a week" kind of signs.) Are the signs legal? Is it anyone's responsibility to take them down? Is there a way to report them? What if I as a citizen wanted to remove them myself and dispose of them -- would I get in trouble?

A City of East Lansing ordinance (Sec. 26-322. - Billposting) prohibits flyers if they are posted in a city park, such as Patriarche Park, but there are exceptions to the ordinance. If it is a notice posted by a police officer or if the flyer is about electing a public official, it is allowed. Flyers are also allowed to be posted when they concern a vote coming before City Council.

The ordinance does not address posting flyers in areas other than city parks, so I followed up with Lt. Scot Sexton from the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD).

Sexton said he believed the ordinance was changed a few years back, and they (ELPD) don’t deal with handbills a lot. He added that when it comes to flyers posted in a public space, citizens have the right to hang up and remove flyers as often as they want to, and in fact one person could hang up a flyer, and another person could come take it down five minutes later. The only time signs might be removed by the Department of Public Works & Environmental Services is if the signs were extremely weathered and starting to deteriorate.

Asked what constituted a public space, Sexton gave me an example: “suppose someone was shouting in City Hall. Well, you can’t ban someone from City Hall because it’s a public building. To charge someone with a crime, you would have to prove that they were endangering someone else.” In other words, citizens may freely express themselves in public spaces whether that expression is speaking, posting flyers, or in some other form, as long as they are not endangering others.

Sexton said if someone did post a flyer on a telephone pole in a city park, at most they would be charged with a civil infraction. He said a $500 fine would be issued by Code Enforcement (the same city employees who inspect buildings to make sure they are safe).

Bottom line: if signs that bother you are posted in a public space, feel free to throw them away. It’s completely legal.