October 5, 1998 98-R-1189
FROM: Mary M. Janicki, Principal Analyst
RE: Municipal Bans on Residential Political Signs
You want to know whether a municipal ordinance can prohibit political signs.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the display of political and other types of signs on residential property is a unique, important, and protected means of communication and towns cannot restrict the display of such signs. The decision has not been overturned. In a 1994 case, the Court upheld lower court rulings declaring an ordinance that bans residential signs an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech (City of Ladue, et al. v. Margaret P. Gilleo, 114 S.Ct. 2038). The Ladue, Missouri ordinance banned all residential signs (with some exceptions) to minimize visual clutter in the town. A resident sued, alleging that the ordinance violated her right to free speech by prohibiting her from displaying a sign stating “For Peace in the Gulf” from her home. The District Court found the ordinance unconstitutional, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the town's interest in regulating signs does not outweigh its residents' right to free speech.
The Court's decision holds that signs are an important medium of political, religious, or personal messages for which there are no exact alternatives. Handbills or newspaper advertisements are poor substitutes since a residential sign readily identifies the “speaker.” Yard signs are unusually inexpensive and convenient. They are a particularly effective way to reach one's neighbors. Moreover, the Court recognized the special place that individual liberty in the home holds in our culture and our law. While signs are subject to municipalities' police powers, the Court warned that they affect communication and towns cannot be overbroad in their restrictions on free speech.
FACTS OF THE CASE
The small town of Ladue, Missouri enacted an ordinance that banned all signs except those falling within 10 exemptions such as “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs; those for churches, religious institutions, and schools; commercial signs in commercially zoned districts; and signs that identify safety hazards. For the most part, residential signs were prohibited. Respondent Margaret P. Gilleo had placed a sign on her property that read “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now” and police informed her it was prohibited. Ms. Gilleo filed an action against the city and its officials, alleging that the sign ordinance violated her First Amendment right of free speech. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance. The town enacted a revised ordinance with a general ban against signs, broadly defined. The new ordinance included a declaration of the town's intent to eliminate the proliferation of signs that create visual clutter, impair property values, and cause safety and traffic hazards, among other things.
In subsequent court action, the District Court decided the new ordinance was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Acknowledging that the town's interests in enacting its ordinance are substantial, the Court of Appeals concluded that those interests were not sufficiently “compelling” to support a content-based restriction.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the lower courts' decisions. In Justice Stevens' opinion, it ruled that such an ordinance violates Ladue residents' right to free speech.
REASONING OF THE COURT
In his decision, Justice Stevens acknowledged that towns have the right to regulate signs, but warned that such a measure inevitably affects communication itself. Signs pose problems that legitimately call for regulation, but a town runs the risk of restricting only certain speech and can then be challenged because its exemptions discriminate on the basis of the signs' messages. Or it can prohibit too much protected speech. The Court, in this case, assumed that the Ladue ordinance did not discriminate on the basis of content or viewpoint discrimination. It did hold that the ordinance almost completely foreclosed an important and distinctive medium of expression to political, religious, or personal messages. The Court rejected the town's justification that the ordinance was a necessary restriction on the “time, place, or manner” of displaying signs.
Justice Stevens highlights the importance of signs and the inadequacy of substitutes like handbills or newspaper advertisements. A resident who displays a sign at his own home conveys a distinct message. A residential sign readily identifies the “speaker” in a way that is different from the same sign displayed someplace else and becomes an important component of the attempt to persuade. In criticism of this particular ordinance, the Court says:
Ladue has almost completely foreclosed a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important. It has totally foreclosed that medium to political, religious, or personal messages. Signs that react to a local happening or express a view on a controversial issue both reflect and animate change in the life of a community. Often placed on lawns or in windows, residential signs play an important part in political campaigns, during with they are displayed to signal the resident's support for particular candidates, parties, or causes. They may not afford the same opportunities for conveying complex ideas as do other media, but residential signs have long been an important and distinct medium of expression (at 2045).
The ruling goes on to point out that such signs are cheap and convenient. And they are a particularly effective way to convey a message to one's neighbors. While the town still has ways to address the problems associated with residential signs, residents themselves have strong incentive to prevent the “visual clutter” and proliferation that Ladue's ordinance attempted to relieve, making it less necessary.
The decision also recalls the respect that our culture and laws hold for individual liberty in the home. The principle carries a special resonance when government tries to constrain a person's ability to speak there. In the final analysis, the Court found that none of the town's interests or concerns over residential signs warrants such an abridgement of its citizens' First Amendment rights.