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FORCES OF TIDINESS LOSE 1 TO FREE SPEECH

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The recent Supreme Court decision on front-yard political expression is a victory of free speech over the grim and unrelenting forces of tidiness.

It is a ruling to cheer about.The case arose over two yard signs and an 81/2-by-11 sign put up in a front window.

Margaret Gilleo, in the lonely position of opposing the Persian Gulf War, put a sign up on her yard in December 1990 that read: "Say No to War in the Persian Gulf. Call Congress Now."

When someone made off with it, she put up another. It was knocked down. Finally, she put a small sign in her home's window saying simply, "For Peace in the Gulf."

Gilleo does not live just anywhere. She lives in the very tidy, very nice suburb of Ladue, near St. Louis. It is not merely tidy by inclination, it is tidy by ordinance. Her sign was deemed both untidy and illegal.

Although signs that say, "lost cat," "garage sale" and "park here and you're dead" also are offenses, you can be pretty sure they are not prosecuted with the swiftness and sureness of a sign that proclaims an unpopular political opinion. Rather than pull down the sign again, the neighbors merely called the authorities to do something about it.

In overruling the town, the court, to its credit, talked not only about freedom of speech in the abstract. It noted, too, that there is something special about putting up a sign in front of your place. It carries a particularly personal endorsement.

When you put up a sign, you don't only stand behind what you say, you live behind it.

Longtime political operators have long recognized this. Warned that his opponent had lined the roads and roadside trees with his signs, a politician I knew was contemptuous. "Signs don't vote," he noted succinctly. If the same number of signs had been displayed in people's yards, he would have been alarmed.

Yards vote. Trees don't. The former shows a candidate has strong supporters. The latter shows he has a pickup truck and a hammer.

This may sound quaint when we hear so much about the way technology allows us to voice opinions easily. E-mailers may hold cross-country flame wars. Owners of cellular phones can drive their cars while telling a radio call-in audience that they are being taxed to death. Where I used to wait for days for anonymous hate mail, I now receive anonymous hate faxes in minutes. Or you can use voice-mail and leave your anger at the beep.

But this progress promotes mostly impersonal speech. Words that pass other people by are seldom challenged and quickly forgotten. Easy words that nobody is held to. Words usually shared with believers, not the community at large.

By comparison, you can't beat a yard sign for accountability. Everyone knows where you stand, who you are, where you live. That's a committed endorsement.

And that's why I hand it to Gilleo. No cry in the dark of cyberspace for her. She stated her sentiments plainly but politely, put them where she lived and bore the consequences from neighbors.

Those who celebrate freedom of speech get as tired as everyone else of having to defend Nazi skinheads and racist pinheads. It is a pleasure, finally, to speak for more defensible speech against the forces of creeping tidiness.

Give up your yard signs, and next they'll come after your lawn flamingos and garden dwarves! The opinionated and untidy everywhere owe a debt to Margaret Gilleo.