A Sign of the Times

UPDATED 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST

MARGARET GILLEO HAS BEEN SPEAKING out politically all her life. In 1968 she campaigned for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and protested the Vietnam War; a decade later she waged a letter campaign against the Reagan Administration's arms buildup. So it shouldn't have been surprising that on Dec. 8, 1990, Gilleo purchased a 2-by-3-foot sign protesting the imminent Gulf War and hammered it into the front lawn of her home in Ladue, Mo., a wealthy suburb west of St. Louis. Nor was it surprising that someone in conservative Ladue removed the sign. When Gilleo put up another one, it was ripped from the ground and thrown aside.

Frustrated, Gilleo, 54, called the Ladue police to report the vandalism. But she was told her sign was illegal; the city had banned all but For Sale signs in the yard. Gilleo asked the city council for a sign permit, but was turned down. So she sued in federal court—and won. A few days later she taped a small placard (For Peace in the Gulf) inside a second-story window. The city issued a new ordinance, making that sign illegal, and Gilleo was back in court. Now, to Gilleo's amazement, the City of Ladue v. Gilleo has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court heard arguments on Feb. 23. "If the First Amendment doesn't protect a citizen's right to display a small sign in her own home, it's hard to imagine what it does protect," declared Gilleo's lawyer, Gerald Greiman, 44. But Ladue (pop. 8,847) sees the issue differently. The city has dozens of ordinances on the books designed to maintain the community's rustic beauty-Apartments, hotels and condos are banned, and satellite dishes and storage sheds must be kept discreetly out of sight. Because residents abide by Ladue's restrictions, "a house in Ladue is worth more than the same house elsewhere," says Mayor Edith Spink, 72. Adds lawyer Jordan Cherrick, 36, who represented Ladue before the Supreme Court: "This is not about Mrs. Gilleo's sign. It's about the problem of sign proliferation."

The court, which will rule by late June, seemed somewhat bemused by the case. At one point, Justice Antonin Scalia puzzled over the news that Gilleo's sign would have been permissible if it had been on a flag—provided the flag was rectangular. "Not a pennant?" he asked. "Tell me why a triangle is worse than a rectangle." Then Justice John Paul Stevens noted that people are allowed to hand out fliers in Ladue. Wouldn't it be inconsistent with the city's concern for neatness, he asked, "to have handbills scattered all over the place?" Before anyone could answer, a justice retorted that leaflets had to be distributed by people in colonial costumes. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned serious. Why are For Sale signs acceptable, she asked, when For Peace signs are not? "I thought that was a really insightful comment," says Gilleo. "It's the way our whole country operates: business is everything."

Ironically, Gilleo and Mayor Spink, who find themselves on opposite sides of the sign dispute, otherwise have much in common. Both are widows who love music and art; both have worked to preserve the environment. Spink, who holds a law degree, has been the city's unpaid mayor for 19 years. Gilleo, who has three grown children, has been active in peace and environmental organizations. "There are lots of issues we do agree on," says Gilleo. "We agree that the beauty of the city must be preserved. I just don't see one little sign destroying Ladue."

JUDITH NEWMAN
MARY M. HARRISON in Ladue and CAROLYN KRAMER in Washington

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