Parties, observers say basic freedoms central to alleged incident

By Nammi Bhagvandoss

Globe Staff Writer

A misdemeanor vandalism case involving a $57 yard sign might not seem worthy of lawyers and a judge, but parties on the inside and outside of the issue think to the contrary.

They say the case is far more important than it appears, that freedom of speech and expression, and American democracy are central to the dispute.

A Joplin real estate saleswoman is to be tried in January in Joplin Municipal Court on a charge of vandalizing political yard signs in September at one of her listings on 20th Street, according to Dan Bagley, city prosecutor.

The saleswoman, Carol Thomas, works for Charles Burt Realtors.

Thomas has suggested that she took the action in the interest of her client, but he and others say she had no right to do so.

One of the others said that in stomping on the signs she trampled on basic U.S. freedoms.

"They are free speech," said Tom Simpson, a professor of political science at Missouri Southern State University. "Of all the rights we enjoy, free speech is a primary one. It's so fundamental to our community. The idea here at stake is the freedom of expression."

Sue Cowen, a Joplin Democrat and local party worker, filed the vandalism complaint against Thomas after a passer-by photographed a woman removing signs on Sunday, Sept. 19, at 20th Street and Adele Avenue, and after Thomas apparently left the folded-up signs and her business card with a note at the local Democrat campaign headquarters. The note said the party did not have permission to leave the signs at this location.

Cowen says all she wants is $57 reimbursement for a missing Kerry-Edwards sign and installation costs at Frank Ray's property at 20th Street and Adele Avenue, but has said previously that the principle of the issue is what is important.

Local Democrats had Ray's permission to place the political signs at the location, according to Cowen.

Gene Hobson said in a Globe interview that he was driving Sept. 19 on 20th Street when he saw a woman tearing up some political yard signs.

Hobson said he questioned the woman whether she had permission to remove the signs and whether the signs might belong to someone else. He said the woman told him to mind his own business.

Hobson said he photographed the woman. He said she was folding signs and stomping on them.

"She was deliberately destroying the signs," Hobson said.

Cowen said party members found some of the signs along with a note from Thomas on Sept. 20 on the porch at their headquarters. The note, on the back of Thomas' business card, said, "Please keep your signs off my 20th Street listings. No permission to do so."

Ray told the Globe he was "irritated" when he first learned that Thomas had removed the campaign signs, but after a few minutes of thought, found the matter "amusing."

Ray said he has no hard feelings about Thomas, whom he has known for a decade and who has sold other property for him.

"She said she took them down because she didn't think I would want them there," Ray said.

Ray said he told Thomas that she should have checked with him first.

He said he told Thomas that she must be a "hard-nosed Republican." He said she said she was a Democrat.

But those on the other side of local politics were equally critical of the alleged action.

John Putnam, chairman of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee, said the small signs are not worth much, but that people work hard to put them out.

"When people start taking them down, it's a violation of the fair spirit of American politics," Putnam said.

When the Globe reported in late October that the charge had been filed against Thomas, she referred questions to her lawyer. But, she first offered her own statement.

"If you run that story, I guarantee you will regret it," Thomas said at the time. "I'd be real careful about what you run in that story. I work for one of the biggest real estate companies in Joplin. That's just my warning to you."

Contacted for this report, she said she had no comment, and again referred the Globe to her attorney, Cobb Young.

Putnam said he was unaware of the court case, and that while there are always problems associated with yard signs, the Thomas case was the first he knew of in his 20 years in politics that was headed to court.

People found guilty of taking signs down, he said, "should get their hands slapped real bad."

Bill Mitchell, 67, who served as the office manager of the Jasper County Republican Headquarters in Joplin, said he heard many people complain that their signs were stolen or damaged.

If adults are removing yards signs, Mitchell said, they are infringing an individual free speech.

"Our military guys over the years have fought for the right to speak freely, and the candidates we choose and the ideas we choose," he said.

Simpson at MSSU said political signs have always been contentious, but are "fundamental to the way we govern ourselves."

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