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Salem tries to shut down Trump-inspired sign shrine

I was a little surprised when I first saw the suburban ranch house on Route 85 that has become a zoning battleground in Salem, where a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission was given a cease-and-desist order for signs he has erected around his house.

The signs, I had been told, were a patchwork of political and social slogans and directives, which included a lot of Donald Trump promotion.

Given some of the Trump sign extravaganzas I've seen around people's yards, the few small signs and single Trump flag on Route 85 seemed remarkably subdued.

I even watched a raucous Trump boat parade on the Mystic River last summer, so I know what Trump signs gone wild look like.

When I caught up with Jonathan Walsh this week, after stopping by his Route 85 house, he admitted that the display of signs around his yard has diminished, especially from a peak during election season, but he says he has no plans to stop putting them up, despite the town orders.

He will continue to fight what he calls censorship by the town.

Walsh told me he resigned a few days ago from his seat as an alternate on the Planning and Zoning Commission, to which he was elected in 2019. He said he didn't resign because of the sign controversy but because he got tired of the pandemic precautions of using Zoom for online meetings.

He referred to the pandemic as political "propaganda" that is hurting small business. He also believes that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president and that Trump won the election.

As proof of this, Walsh told me Biden couldn't possibly have won, given how small the crowds were at his campaign events, compared to Trump's big crowds.

It was actually a pleasant conversation, given that Walsh and I seem to live in different universes in regards to a lot of what we think is true and not true. I realized early on in the chat that we would never find common ground on topics like who won the election and whether mask-wearing is a good idea.

He was friendly, polite and gladly answered all my questions.

I subsequently found an email Walsh sent in July to the Salem Board of Education, insisting that schools reopen to in-person instruction, and realized how very differently we view the pandemic.

The email offers a glimpse into Walsh's thinking and might explain why he is determined to defy the cease-and-desist order about his signs and his right to express himself.

"I will not allow this political war that democrats have waged for four years against our president and our country to interfere with my son's education," Walsh wrote in the email to the school board. "(I) am prepared to fight any additional unconstitutional lock-downs and interruptions in my family's life, with every right granted to me by God."

Matthew T. Allen, Salem's zoning and wetlands official, told me in an email that Walsh was cited in a notice of violation about unpermitted signs in November 2019.  After failing to comply, Allen said, Walsh was issued a cease-and-desist order in December 2019.

Allen said all enforcement action has been taken without regard to the content of the signs. He said the town has chosen not to pursue court action, in which it could have sought fines or imprisonment for willful violations.

Walsh told me that, when there were a lot of signs, the display attracted passersby on busy Route 85 and some stopped their cars. Some of his property was vandalized. He said police never prosecuted anyone.

Some people thank him, he said, including several Catholic priests who he said have stopped to praise the signs against abortion.

Walsh said he's been putting up signs for years but was only cited for violations after he was elected to the planning board. He said he is facing censorship by the town for standing up for what is good and righteous in the world.

While I am not sympathetic with Walsh for his political views, I do believe the signs on his house now don't seem especially offensive and are certainly not commercial in nature.

One of the most prominent is a big banner across the garage bay that says: "Freedom."

It's hard to argue about that.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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