It didn't take a constitutional lawyer to effectively kill Orchard Park's ordinance banning political signs -- just one high school senior.
Chris Sasiadek may have been taking U.S. Government and Politics at Orchard Park High School, but the 17-year-old has applied the knowledge off school grounds to force the town into a situation where it has to either remove the ordinance from the books or drastically revise it.
The Town Board will conduct a public hearing Wednesday night in the Municipal Building on whether it should eliminate the law. But the ordinance, which bans political signs on private property, is essentially dead.
Town Attorney Leonard Berkowitz concedes the ordinance probably wouldn't stand up in court, even if it were amended.
"I don't think it's salvageable," Berkowitz said.
Sasiadek found out about the ordinance in the fall, when he put a Ralph Nader sign on his parents' lawn during the presidential race. A town official told his father that the sign was illegal, although the building department never took the sign down.
Building inspectors did remove signs and issue citations in a few other places, though, leading to the usual grousing that had become an election-year staple. But only Sasiadek decided to take on the law.
"I was kind of aggravated about that," he said. "The law apparently was unconstitutional, and it seemed kind of unethical since it was within the bounds of constitutional law. . . . They kind of acknowledged their own shaky constitutional grounds."
Sasiadek did his own research,
citing a Supreme Court case in which a Missouri woman won the right to post a "Peace in the Gulf" sign during the Persian Gulf War.
Sasiadek repeatedly brought the issue up at Town Board meetings, eventually contacting the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU threatened litigation if the law isn't revised.
Sasiadek said the NYCLU's involvement was a turning point in the situation, although he said Town Supervisor Toni Cudney was supportive.
"I realize she doesn't actually support having signs in the town," he said. "But she did the right thing. It seemed like she was the only one who was working on this issue and it seemed like everyone else was trying to stonewall it."
The measure was tabled for two months after it first went on a Town Board agenda.
"I hated the idea we had an unconstitutional law on the books," Cudney said. "Especially when I swear to uphold the Constitution."
Councilman John Mills, who has announced he plans to run against Cudney for supervisor in November, admitted he was "cool to the idea" of eliminating the law.
"It's like a noise ordinance," Mills said. "It's a clutter ordinance as far as I'm concerned. If people would pick up their signs after a campaign, it wouldn't be as big an issue.
"The young fellow's making an issue because his freedom of speech is being challenged. I understand that. But I think maybe 10 or 20 years from now, he may have a different attitude when he's a homeowner in the community."
Sasiadek said he probably wouldn't have gotten as involved in the situation if he hadn't started attending Town Board meetings with his parents and others from his Summit Avenue neighborhood after Diversified Control cut down trees it wasn't permitted to when it expanded its industrial buildings on property behind their homes.
Sasiadek, who says he plans to attend college to study urban planning or sociology -- not political science -- said he supports the suggestion that has surfaced that the town political chairmen go back to the gentlemen's agreement that was in place before the ordinance took effect roughly 20 years ago, but that there are bigger issues in play.
"It just seems like town government shouldn't be able to control what people do with county, national and state politics," he said. "And not just support for political candidates, but for issues that fall into the domain of politics, like support for peacekeeping in the Balkans or saying no to the WTO (World Trade Organization). Because signs are very important to issues that do not get a lot of attention in the traditional media."
And Sasiadek, meanwhile, said he got an A-plus in that government and politics class.
"This is the first time I've had someone undertake that sort of initiative in the community," said Tim Marshall, who taught the class. "It's great to see a student pursue it to a successful conclusion. That's a great experience for him. Hopefully he'll carry it with him through the rest of his life."