Electronic signs give rise to Amherst city council debate, First Amendment warnings


Don’t tread on free speech, cautions Amherst law director Tony Pecora

By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com



<p style="text-align: right;">Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst building inspector David Macartney fields questions by the ordinance committee at a Sept. 21 meeting about sign regulations and enforcement.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst building inspector David Macartney fields questions by the ordinance committee at a Sept. 21 meeting about sign regulations and enforcement.


Careful not tread on political speech, Amherst city council is slowly revising its rules on what types of signs can be erected.

The effort is an attempt to clear up disputes over electronic signs.

City attorney Frank Carlson told the ordinance committee that he’s noted a huge influx of questions in recent years from businesses that want to have large, bright signs. They’ve been told “the general posture of the city is you can’t have them unless you go through an appeals process,” he said.

Difficult cases have arisen when churches sought to erect signs in residential areas where they could cause issues with neighbors, he said.

Sometimes, exceptions have been made for some signs and not others without much reason to support those decisions, councilman Joe Miller said.

“What we’re going to attempt to do here when this is all said and done is come up with some clear language that will allow our building department to address the issues,” he said.

At Carlson’s request, council tabled the issue Monday so officials have time to review sweeping changes to Chapter 1149 of the Amherst Codified Ordinances.

That will also give Carlson and law director Tony Pecora to figure out ways to keep the law from interfering with political speech.

“Restrictions on political signs are extremely difficult,” said Carlson, advising council not to step on First Amendment rights.

Pecora told council members to avoid any changes that would regulate the content of signs. Instead, he said the city should only have generic rules.

For example, Amherst legal staff cautioned against wording that would allow garage sale signs to be larger than political signs — which could easily be construed as a free speech violation.

Erecting a sign in front of your house is an inexpensive and effective way to get your political views out there, and that’s why controls on content of signs should be off-limits, Pecora said.

That ideal doesn’t just apply to the month leading up to elections, either.

“Keep your businesses in mind because they’re entitled to their advertising too,” said council president John Dietrich, who called signage law revisions an issue “important to prosperity in the city.”

It is unclear how long council intends to leave signage changes tabled.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst building inspector David Macartney fields questions by the ordinance committee at a Sept. 21 meeting about sign regulations and enforcement.

http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2015/09/web1_signs.jpg

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst building inspector David Macartney fields questions by the ordinance committee at a Sept. 21 meeting about sign regulations and enforcement.

Don’t tread on free speech, cautions Amherst law director Tony Pecora

By Jason Hawk

jhawk@civitasmedia.com