Governments should lay off political yard signs

Monday, August 2, 2010

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When elections near, a perennial free-speech dispute arises over the display
of political campaign signs.

Many municipalities have laws limiting the number and size of signs in
residential areas. Supporters of the laws contend they limit visual clutter,
improve traffic safety and preserve neighborhood aesthetics of neighborhoods.
Detractors counter that such limitations infringe on fundamental First Amendment

Some of the more restrictive laws prohibit homeowners from posting more than
two or three signs in their yards. Others impose durational limits, saying
signs can be posted only 60 days before to 60 days after an election.
Still other laws regulate sign size.

Disputes have cropped up across the country, from Mapleton, Utah, to Mount
Juliet, Tenn., to Howard County, Md. In Illinois, a
new law
passed in June prohibits municipalities from regulating political
campaign signs other than with reasonable restrictions on size.

Several problems emerge when laws limit individuals’ right to display
political campaign signs. First, the laws selectively regulate a specific type
of speech on the basis of their content — political campaign speech. In
free-speech law, content-based laws are viewed with much greater skepticism than
laws that treat speech equally — so-called content-neutral laws.

Second, political speech represents the core type of speech the First
Amendment was designed to protect. For-sale signs, lawn-cutting ad signs and
other commercial signs shouldn’t receive more protection than signs suggesting
who should be our next leaders. In a constitutional democratic republic,
citizens must have the right to support or denounce political candidates.

Third, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in City
of Ladue v. Gilleo
(1994) that yard signs are “venerable means of
communication that is both unique and important.” The Court protected the right
of Margaret Gilleo to display a sign that read, “Say No to War in the Persian
Gulf, Call Congress Now.” Though the case didn't involve a campaign sign, the
Court emphasized the importance of political-message signs.

And finally, there's just something un-American and unseemly about the
government regulating the political speech of a homeowner on his or her

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