After facing criticism that he was stifling free speech, U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello will now allow political signs at his 10 remaining town hall meetings across the district.
Perriello’s office had banned signs at his 20 scheduled town hall forums during Congress’ recess after a number of constituents told them that the abundance of signs at last year’s town hall forums contributed to an overly charged and politicized atmosphere.
The Rutherford Institute, an Albemarle County-based civil liberties organization, chastised the freshman Democrat over the sign ban policy Wednesday.
“Your sign ban amounts to an act of outright censorship that raises grave Constitutional concerns,” wrote Rutherford Institute founder and President John W. Whitehead in a letter to Perriello.
Perriello’s spokesman, Michael Kelly, said Wednesday afternoon that they would prefer if constituents did not bring signs to the town hall forums but will no longer prohibit them outright.
“Going forward, we will suggest that folks refrain from bringing signs inside to encourage an atmosphere of civility and discussion, rather than spectacle,” Kelly said. “We will not prevent folks from bringing a sign if they choose to, but we will ask them to be considerate and respectful of other constituents’ time and comfort.”
Whitehead’s organization got involved after being contacted by Steve Peters, a member of the Jefferson Area Tea Party who has printed signs and stickers that feature a quote from Perriello that says: “ … if you don’t tie our hands, we will keep stealing.”
Perriello’s quote came from a statement he gave last March in favor of implementing new rules in Congress to require a balanced budget and to prohibit spending without finding a way to pay for it.
At a town hall forum last week in Scottsville, Peters complained that he couldn’t bring in his anti-Perriello signs.
“Last year we were allowed to have our signs,” Peters said, outside Scottsville Elementary School before the town hall forum began. “We didn’t have to sit like little kids in a classroom where you have to raise your hand to ask a question.”
Carole Thorpe, chairwoman of the Jefferson Area Tea Party, linked the ban on signs at Perriello’s town hall forums to a ban on protests in the parking lot in front of his Charlottesville district office.
“It is one thing for congressman Perriello to shield his local office on private property to limit the protests of constituents who disagree with him,” Thorpe said. “It is quite another for him to dictate methods of free speech in his town halls — which are funded by taxpayers and held primarily in buildings funded by taxpayers. For many who attend town halls but will not rise to speak, the signs they bring are expressions of their free speech.”
Perriello’s district office landlord asked Charlottesville’s police department to prohibit protesters from convening in the parking lot, having received complaints from neighboring businesses.
While Perriello’s office agreed to rescind the sign ban, it wasn’t without a mild swipe at the Rutherford Institute.
“If Mr. Whitehead has further concerns,” Kelly said, “a phone call or visit is a more efficient way to address problems than a press release.”
Perriello’s next town halls in the area are slated for 7:30 a.m. Friday at the Ruckersville fire station and 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center in Charlottesville.