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 Although the Borough agreed not to enforce the political sign ban, unless that portion of the ordinance is formally repealed, the ACLU-NJ will still file a lawsuit.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.