Civil Liberties

Fire Sign


In West Texas, a man's land is his only as long as he doesn't go posting signs telling passersby their constitutional rights.

Attorney Pat Barber was fed up with what he saw as excessive police searches of vehicles on Interstate 20 outside Colorado City, a small town (population 4,000) west of Abilene. So he built a 128-square-foot billboard telling motorists whizzing past his ranch to "Just Say No to Searches."

The sign also displayed a phone number to call for a recorded message detailing motorists' rights when the police stop them. Unless officers have probable cause to search the vehicle, they must ask the driver's permission. But motorists often do not know they have the right to refuse such requests.

"The state police were stopping everything that moved in Mitchell County–it was like a roving roadblock," Barber, 53, told the Odessa American. "It also offends me when I see an innocent, frightened traveler standing on the side of the road with the police digging through their mini-van," added Barber, who spent 10 years as Mitchell County prosecutor.

The day the sign went up, county sheriff's deputies reported it to the Texas Department of Transportation. The state DOT, in an almost certain record time of four days, informed Barber that he was violating the state's 1972 Highway Beautification Act, an infraction carrying a fine of up to $1,000 a day.

The Texan took the matter to court, claiming First Amendment protection for his sign. In late October, a local judge ruled against him. Barber opted to take the sign down his own way–by setting it ablaze.

Now the sign is gone, but Barber plans to continue his fight to tell citizens about their rights. His Web site,, is full of testimonials from people thankful that someone wants to tell them to just say no.