LeTellier: A Look at the Legal Landscape of Political Lawn Signs

TO THE EDITOR: Many people like to express their support for a political candidate with a yard sign. Sometimes this form of freedom of expression conflicts with a city law banning or limiting the time in which political signs may be displayed. The question becomes whether such municipal laws infringe upon citizens’ and perhaps the candidates’ First Amendment rights.

Some municipal officials claim that putting limits on yard signs furthers a variety of state interests, including aesthetics and traffic safety. However, opponents of such regulations counter that yard signs, unlike perhaps large billboards too close to public streets, do not in any way reduce traffic safety. They also contend that aesthetic interests pale in comparison to the importance of political speech expressed in campaign signs.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that residential signs have long been an important and distinct form of expression that enjoys the highest level of constitutional protection. At that time, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “with rare exceptions, content discrimination in regulations on the speech of private citizens on private property is presumptively impermissible.”

The Haddon Heights’ political sign ban violates the right to free speech both under the United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution. The total prohibition on political signs in the Borough does not serve a legitimate purpose and restricts speech, especially by precluding the time-honored right of Americans to express political messages through the placement of signs on their lawns.

Additionally, the ordinance impermissible grants greater protection to commercial speech than to political speech, as other types of signs are permitted in residential districts, including real estate signs, church signs, and signs promoting events. Although the Borough agreed not to enforce the political sign ban, unless that portion of the ordinance is formally repealed, the ACLU-NJ will still file a lawsuit.

“New Jersey’s towns need to know that overreaching limitations on lawn signs are unconstitutional and that the ACLU-NJ is ready to defend the public’s rights against such restrictions,” stated ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas, who previously obtained an injunction against the Borough of Franklin Lakes for restricting the use of political lawn signs. “Especially in the midst of a national election, the right to freedom of speech must be zealously protected.”

The Montgomery County Council voted to repeal a provision that requires property owners to remove lawn signs after 30 days or pay $30 to apply for a permit to keep them up longer.

The American Civil Liberties Union had argued that the time limit — a provision in a larger sign ordinance that had been in place since 1998 — violates the First Amendment right to free speech, and the organization was threatening to sue the county.

Also in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Missouri city law prohibiting signs at private residences. Margaret Gilleo ran afoul of the law when she placed a 24-by-36-inch sign in her front lawn with the words, “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now” and an 8 ½-by-11-inch sign in the second-story window of her home that read, “For Peace in the Gulf.”

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rejected the ordinance in City of Ladue v. Gilleo, writing that residential yard signs were “a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.” The Court explained:

“Displaying a sign from one’s own residence often carries a message quite distinct from placing the sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means. … Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute. … Even for the affluent, the added costs in money or time of taking out a newspaper advertisement, handing out leaflets on the street, or standing in front of one’s house with a handheld sign may make the difference between participating and not participating in some public debate.”

Lower courts have cited the Gilleo precedent with great success in challenging city bans on political yard signs. In Curry v. Prince George’s County (1999), a federal district court in Maryland invalidated a sign ordinance that limited the posting of political campaign signs in private residences to 45 days before and up to 10 days after an election. “There is no distinction to be made between the political campaign signs in the present case and the ‘cause’ sign in City of Ladue,” the court wrote. “When political campaign signs are posted on private residences, they merit the same special solicitude and protection established for cause signs in City of Ladue.”

In Arlington County Republican Committee v. Arlington County (1993), a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a county law that imposed a two-sign limit on temporary signs for each residence. The court noted that “The two-sign limit infringes on this speech by preventing homeowners from expressing support for more than two candidates when there are numerous contested elections.”

Taking another example, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in City of Painesville Building Department v. Dworken & Bernstein Co. (2000) that a city law requiring the removal of political signs within 48 hours after an election is unconstitutional as applied to the posting of such signs on private property. “Although the Supreme Court has not considered the issue, the overwhelming majority of courts that have reviewed sign ordinances imposing durational limits for temporary political signs tied to a specific election date have found them to be unconstitutional,” the court wrote.

This does not mean that cities can never legislate in the area of political signs. A city may regulate the size, shape and location of yard signs. Such regulations may very well qualify as content-neutral and reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions on speech. Similarly, a city may be able to establish a 10-sign limit per residence on yard signs. At some point, the sheer number of signs might realistically impair the aesthetics of a neighborhood.

Lawn signs on private property are protected. Politicians who put their political signs on public right-a-ways alongside highways, roads, streets are not legal. They cannot use public property or funds for political activities.

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9 Responses

  1. llewellynh says:

    My unfavorite spot is right across from our local grade school and the land is owned by a wildlife group. Loaded up with signs for usually a month and just makes the place look tacky as can be. Cannot believe anyone who runs for office thinks those signs will positively affect the outcome.

    • Garry Black says:

      That’s why sign people have to consider their locations. When you see stuff like that it’s individual’s who are on their own not the regular sign person or team.

      • llewellynh says:

        But it’s been that way every election for 20 years. And it’s both parties and it does not one thing that is positive.

  2. Tommy p says:

    These signs are ads for thieves, present and future.

  3. Hector says:

    The signs are really for the candidates ego. Seriously has anyone ever , glanced at a sign and said. Gee , look at that sign, I think I will vote for that person cause of that sign? In Toms River the vast majority of voters are R. They just mosey on into the voting booth for the most part and vote the party line. That is pretty much why the D’s never win and put up retreads year after year. IMHO

  4. Garry Black says:

    Unless you’re in a community with a association where the US Supreme court ruled that there you’ve signed (no pun) away your constitutional rights. Signs are protected but many code enforcers and departments think they are the law with total disregard of law, court rulings, elected officials etc. A problem in many municipalities that haven’t wised up and gotten rid of them. Lawn signs carry far more weight than other advertising which is all they are. Their semi subliminal name recognition tools. Frankly most people are clueless about what’s going on in communities and rarely know there’s even a election. Or what types of government their town operates on. So their a necessary evil. People’s own fault.

    • JIMLETELLIER says:

      On Thursday, July 26, 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its much awaited and highly anticipated decision in Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association. In overturning the Appellate Division’s decision and reinstating the decision of the Trial Court, the Supreme Court found that common interest community associations could lawfully impose reasonable restrictions on its members – such as restricting the posting of political signs on common elements or allowing access to a community newsletter – and that such restrictions do not violate the New Jersey Constitution’s protections regarding freedom of expression and equal protection.

      At issue in Twin Rivers was the question of whether the New Jersey Constitution’s speech and assembly clauses should be applied to limit the authority of homeowners’ associations to promulgate certain community-wide restrictions and, if so, under what circumstances. In the lower court’s decision, Committee for a Better Twin Rivers v. Twin Rivers Homeowners’ Association, 383 N.J. Super. 22 (App. Div. 2006), the Appellate Division found that because common interest community associations have supplanted certain responsibilities once undertaken by towns and municipalities, the individual members’ state constitutional rights to free speech outweigh the restrictions imposed by homeowners associations, even though such property is private rather than public.

      In the Supreme Court’s decision, authored by Justice John E. Wallace, Jr., the Court determined that even in light of New Jersey’s broad interpretation of its constitutional free speech provisions, the “nature, purposes, and primary use of Twin Rivers property is for private purposes and does not favor a finding that the Association’s rules and regulations violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.” Moreover, the Court found that “plaintiffs’ expressional activities are not unreasonably restricted” by the Association’s rules and regulations. Finally, the Court held that “the minor restrictions on plaintiffs’ expressional activities are not unreasonable or oppressive, and the Association is not acting as a municipality.”

      Read your agreements contract before moving into these communities, or face losing your rights to activist leftist condo officials.

  5. Joe Pockets says:

    I have enjoyed the way you honor the Freeholders wonderful work at the meeting for years, Is that how a Jackson resident can get public work in Berkeley? I would gladly do the same! Keep up the fine work, Your the best!

  6. Doreen Prinzo says:

    Signs on your property for any reason…”Merry Christmas”, Happy Kwanza, or Vote for XYZ are an expression of the property owner. The modern political movement is to chip away at individual rights using the call of the “greater good” or “Public Safety” to do it.

    We may not all like the signs, or even want to see them, but to take away an individuals right to post them is wrong. The loss of expression and freedom of speech must be protected. Even if some individuals think the signage looks tacky. The point of signage on personal property is not weather they influence anyone but that they are a right of the property owner and it makes that property owner feel good.

    People wake up and see how much power you are giving to the government……one day that power can turn on you.

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