Outside of William Vitalec’s front door in Grapevine, a small, floppy-eared, ornamental puppy stands sentry. A bone hangs loosely from its mouth with the word “Welcome” printed on it.
But Vitalec’s other lawn decorations, according to some neighbors — and the city of Grapevine — are anything but welcoming.
The centerpiece is a large banner with a four-letter expletive directed toward President Joe Biden in a thick, bold type. Right below, the same expletive is directed toward those who voted for him. A more artistic —and potentially more problematic — banner sits to the left. The first three letters of the same word, which starts with ‘f,’ are formed by handguns. The ‘k’ is represented by an M-16-style assault rifle.
That banner targets both Biden and contains a sexist slur that rhymes with “Joe,” presumably referring to Vice President Kamala Harris. Two smaller banners, both with the same message as the first, sit on either side of the large flags.
The signs are hard to miss on the well-traveled street where Vitalec’s house sits, between Baylor Scott & White Medical Center Grapevine and Northwest Highway. A church and preschool are about 350 yards away from Vitalec’s home. About a half-mile away is Cannon Elementary School.
Despite the abrasive messages of his banner, Vitalec said the reaction he’s gotten from neighbors and passersby has been “99% positive,” apart from one man who threatened him physically. Others have cursed Vitalec out for the banners, which he said he found ironic.
“You can’t please them all,” Vitalec said.
Similar signs have popped up across the country.
In New Jersey, a municipal judge ordered a woman to remove anti-Biden messages similar to the ones displayed in front of Vitalec’s home or face fines of $250 per day, The New York Times reported. A state court ruled this week that she can keep the banners. Similar fights have played out in Indiana, Tennessee, Connecticut and Florida, The Times reported.
Vitalec, who said he is a Navy veteran, said he was prompted to place the banners about a month ago because of Biden’s “belief in communism and socialism” (Biden has denounced both) and Harris’ belief that the “military is entitled.” (She has said no such thing).
Reactions from neighbors ranged from indifferent to indignant.
Phyllis Rodriguez, who lives one street behind Vitalec, said she can’t help but laugh at the banners — there seems to be a new one every time she passes the house. But it’s a bit ridiculous, Rodriguez said, that anybody can still so passionately hate a man who was elected president nearly nine months ago.
“Everything’s done and over with,” she said. “Why are we still doing this?”
Michael Gardner is tired of the banners.
Gardner, who is visually impaired, often walks to the Tom Thumb across from Vitalec’s house with his two young daughters, who accompany him so he doesn’t get hit by a car while walking to the store. They see the banners every time, Gardner said.
“I’m all for free speech, but it’s pretty upsetting to have my kids looking at it,” he said.
Marilyn Wood, who wrote to The Morning News, said her newly reading 5-year-old granddaughter sounded out the banners as they drove by. The girl had some trouble pronouncing the president’s name, the reader said, but no issue at all saying the first word.
The word on Vitalec’s banner is one of the most versatile in the English language. It’s also protected by U.S. Supreme Court precedent. In 1971, the Court ruled in Cohen v. California that the display of the word is protected free speech.
Because of that precedent, the Grapevine Police Department said its hands are tied, even though they’ve received several complaints.
“We understand the banner may be upsetting, but our actions are limited by the Court,” police spokeswoman Amanda McNew said in a statement.
In a statement that stopped just short of calling Vitalec a bad neighbor, a spokeswoman for the city of Grapevine said other Supreme Court cases keep them from taking action as well.
“We share the sentiment that the profane language on the sign is inappropriate and objectionable,” Mona Quintanilla said. But Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a 2015 Supreme Court case which said municipalities can’t place content-based restrictions on signs or banners, leaves the city “hamstrung in its ability to address the offensive profanity on the sign.”
“The City of Grapevine takes pride in the fabric of its neighborhoods and works diligently to protect them,” Quintanilla said. “We would hope that the spirit of decorum and neighborhood friendliness would prevail. However, to date, the property owner has not relented even in response to objections.”
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Those court cases haven’t stopped other municipalities and law-enforcement agencies from trying — and failing — to punish people for displaying obscene messages. In 2019, a Florida man was arrested on obscenity and resisting charges for refusing to remove a decal from his truck about a sex act. The charges were later dropped, and the man was heralded as a hero of the First Amendment.
Vitalec said he has no plans of taking down the signs any time soon.
“I should be able to express how I feel,” he said. “I think there’s too much ‘us against them’ type stuff. We all live in the same country, so we should all learn to get along together.”
Does he think his banners are a good starting point for getting along?
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”