First Amendment weighs heavily in sign law talks

By Jason Hawk -



Real estate signs need to have the same rules as banners bearing your political views.

That’s the ruling by Amherst law director Tony Pecora, who has in recent weeks argued for city council to revise old laws that put restrictions on temporary yard signs.

“If someone wants to erect a ‘Repeal Obamacare’ sign, they should be allowed,” he told town legislators.

And since national health care is a thorny issue unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, those types of signs shouldn’t have a city-mandated expiration date, he said.

That’s just one example, but Pecora’s point is that there can’t be different standards for signs giving voice to political views and those advertising commercial interests such as homes for sale, garage sales, or cars for sale.

He is asking council to enact language requiring all temporary signs to be checked every 90 days to make sure they meet regulations, then replaced if necessary. That onus would be on the property owner.

For instance, a badly tattered sign, no matter what its content, would have to be removed. But it could be replaced with a new, identical sign.

Using that method, a political message could be posted in residential or business zones for weeks, months, years, or even decades.

There are some checks and balances: Just because you have First Amendment rights doesn’t mean you can put up a huge billboard with flashing lights in your yard, Pecora said.

The Constitution and federal courts allow signs to be regulated for aesthetics and public safety, but officials can’t discriminate based on a sign’s message.

The lines do blur a bit, though. The city could still lawfully demand that profanity-laden signs or those showing images that would be otherwise socially unacceptable be taken down.

Pecora said many cities have unconstitutional rules on the books regarding signage.

Just this past year, Gilbert, Ariz., was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for a situation in which local laws allowed commercial signs and political signs to stay up for different lengths.

The court noted that signs directing the public to meetings of a nonprofit group — a Presbyterian Church — had more stringent restrictions than signs conveying other messages.

“We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas.

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


By Jason Hawk