Saturday, March 9, 2013

Zoning, Political Signs, and the First Amendment

There was an interesting article in the Tennessean yesterday indicating that a candidate in the upcoming city elections is suing the city based on an ordinance, which evidently allows only a maximum of 1 yard signs per political candidate in an election. The suit argues that this is a violation of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.

In fact, the United States Supreme Court has already decided a similar case. In City of Ladue v Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994),  the United States Supreme Court was presented with a yard sign protesting the war in the Gulf which the city indicated was prohibited under the terms of its sign ordinance. After obtaining a temporary injunction in the District Court, Ms. Gilleo put a similar sign in an upstairs window. The city repealed its original sign ordinance, enacted a new one which broadly prohibited all residential signs, except for residential identification signs (no greater than 1 square foot) and signs advertising the property for sale or lease.

The Supreme Court of the United States had little trouble in finding the ordinance totally unconstitutional. The court found that yard signs and window signs were cheap, simple, and efficient forms of communication, historically permitted across the United States, and for which there was no reasonable substitute. The ordinance was struck down as unconstitutional.

Given the result of the Gilleo case, the Spring Hill zoning ordinance may be constitutionally infirm. In this instance, the regulation is directly aimed at political speech, certainly one of the highest forms of free speech. Political campaigns are by their very nature temporary, and placement of the signs on such a temporary basis also augurs against the constitutionality of limitations on such political speech. The Supreme Court decision in Gilleo would certainly appear to favor the challenger here.