ByTim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This story contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Havre city officials were preparing to take legal action to remove a sign - derogatory to homosexuals and containing an obscene phrase - that had been placed across from City Hall when the problem resolved itself.
The sign disappeared overnight.
The sign was installed by Havre businessman Erik Meis on Tuesday night or early Wednesday. Meis acknowledged today that he put up the sign but declined to comment further.
The sign, on a fence on property owned by Meis on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street, made a derogatory comment about homosexuals, apparently in support of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
The sign read: "Silly Faggot, Dicks are for Chicks."
Mayor Bob Rice said Meis told him Monday night that he intended to put up the sign. Rice said he tried to dissuade Meis.
"It's his property, but it's offensive to some people," Rice said.
Assistant Police Chief George Tate said Meis also talked to Police Chief Mike Barthel Monday about his intentions. Barthel, who has now returned to Missoula for the Laurence Jackson Jr. homicide trial, told Meis he should wait until the city attorney could check out the legality of the sign.
Tate said City Attorney Tamara Barkus researched the issue and told him Wednesday that the sign was in violation of a Havre ordinance prohibiting defamation. Defamation is defined by the ordinance as exposing any person, group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society."
Violating the ordinance carries a possible sentence of six months in jail and a fine of $500.
Rice said people had been calling City Hall complaining about the sign, and he told them that since it was on private property, the city had to research what action it could take.
"That's not a city lot, contrary to what people believe," Rice said.
He said 75 or 80 people had called him, the police and City Hall staffers complaining about the sign.
Tate said that of the 30 or so calls to the Police Department about the sign, all but one caller wanted it taken down.
The other caller said that although he disagreed with the message on the sign, he respected the right to free speech of the person who put it up, Tate said.
Rice said Wednesday he wanted to give Meis the chance to take the sign down before the city took legal action.
"I'm trying to be very diplomatic with Mr. Meis," he said Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday night, a Fire Department trailer was parked in front of the sign, blocking the view of it from Fifth Avenue.
Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said this morning the trailer was not parked there with the intent of blocking the view of the sign.
Tate said he told the Fire Department to move the trailer sometime after 8 p.m. when it was noted that the trailer was parked too close to a fire hydrant.
At that time, he noticed that the sign had been vandalized. Someone had painted over the middle of the saying, leaving "Silly Chicks."
The sign was gone by this morning.
Tate said he doesn't know what happened to it.
He said that if the sign is put back up, he will warn Meis that it violates the defamation ordinance. If the sign were to stay up, he would cite Meis with violating the ordinance, Tate said.
Rice said today he doubts the sign will be put back up.
Putting the sign up was walking a fine line between the right to free speech and violating the city ordinance, especially since it was posted on a major thoroughfare in Havre, Tate said.
"It's offended the officers here, I know that," he said.
"I just don't understand what the guy is doing because it offends so many people," Tate said.
Rice had placed a satellite dish with the message "Havre supports our troops" painted inside the dish on the lot with Meis' permission. Rice said he removed the dish Wednesday after the inflammatory sign was put up.
"I don't want people to think (Meis') sign is affiliated with anything I do or with the city of Havre," he said.
He said he asked Meis Monday night why he wanted to put up the sign, and didn't really get an answer other than Meis saying he had a bumper sticker with the same saying on it and he liked the saying.