No For Sale Signs Allowed IV

With summer at an end, I have a final post about the ban on for sale signs in a Chicago suburb.  (You can read the others here, here and here.)  In this last post, I offer some observations about how community norms and identity play a role in perpetuating the ban.

In prior posts, I’ve written that many in the Village are unaware of how problematic the ordinance is under the First Amendment.  But some residents undoubtedly know, either because of their own familiarity with constitutional law or because the issue is occasionally raised in the opinion section of the local paper or on local blogs.  Political will to change the ordinance, however, seems close to non-existent. 

This lack of will may partly reflect the political reality within the Village.  The same political organization has been in control for more than thirty years and its candidates almost invariably support the Village’s integration policies, which include the ban.  Some residents probably also appreciate the aesthetic effects of the ordinance, because the lack of signage makes the Village prettier than it otherwise would be.  Other residents may feel that the issue doesn’t warrant action, either because they are already inclined to use a realtor to sell their house or because the inability to use a sign does not deter them from entering the for-sale-by-owner market.  I also suspect, however, that some residents who are aware of the constitutional issue would describe themselves as trading freedom of speech for integration.

Integration in the Village is noteworthy and a source of pride for many who live there.  For starters, the Village managed to avoid the white flight that occurred in surrounding areas during the 1970s and 1980s.  (In one neighboring community, African-Americans were less than 1 percent of the population in 1960 and more than 90 percent of the population in 1990.)  The Village also managed to gradually attract African-Americans, who were less than 1 percent of the population in 1970; 11 percent in 1980; 19 percent in 1990; and 22 percent in 2000.  As of the 2000 census, tracts ranged from 7 to 36 percent African-American, with more than 80 percent of blocks having at least 1 African-American family.  Today dozens of other ethnic groups also are represented in the Village, which was named in 2000 by PlanetOut as one of the most “gay-friendly” communities in the United States. 

With the possible exception of some of its architecture, diversity is the single-most defining characteristic of the Village.  Residents need only travel to the Village’s own borders and look across the street to see the results of failed (or non-existent) integration policies.  In my experience, every op-ed or blog post that mentions the First Amendment issue is followed by a response that points to the dismal reality of neighboring communities.  Talk of integration and what is required to maintain it pops up everywhere, even in contexts where you are not expecting it.  (For example, a recent newspaper article announcing the start of block party season noted that the tradition dated back to a time when getting to know your neighbors was an important means of preventing panic-selling.)  The Village tends to attract people who value a diverse community.  These individuals may not want to threaten integration—or be perceived by their peers as threatening integration—by advocating for a repeal of the ban.

 That last sentence suggests that the ban plays a role in keeping the Village integrated.  I have no idea whether the ban actually fulfills this function and neither did anyone with whom I spoke, although some expressed skepticism.   The ban is only one piece of the Village’s integration program and it is likely that other policies, particularly those in effect for rental properties, play a far more significant role.  The efficacy of the ban, however, is not the central point.  Something the Village did has worked and, from the perspective of a resident who likes her community, why mess with success?

Of course, not everyone in this left-leaning suburb is of one mind, as I was reminded when I drove past an enormous REPEAL OBAMACARE sign.  But my central inquiry is about why an unconstitutional ordinance continues to chill speech.  In prior posts, I’ve described the effects of the Village’s own actions, the incentives of the real estate community, and the fear of negative market signaling by would-be for-sale-by-owners.  In this last post, I’m noting that the ordinance could not remain in place if Village residents refused to tolerate it.  A commitment to and an appreciation for integration may be one reason why residents are not clamoring for their First Amendment rights.

P.S.  To repeat my policy about comments on this series:

I received some great comments on my prior posts, both on the blog and in private emails.  I also received comments from individuals who are familiar with the municipality I’m discussing and were seeking to turn the post into a referendum on various Village policies, and/or misrepresented what actually happens in the Village.  To reiterate what I said in my first post, I am interested in the larger question of what happens when government fails to formally repeal unconstitutional laws and about how community norms can trump Supreme Court precedent.   I welcome all comments in this vein; I’ll delete all others.

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