Signs can go wild during election season

Published 9:44 am Tuesday, September 27, 2016

By James Eli Shiffer

Minneapolis Star Tribune

If you were waiting to put up 50-foot billboards in your yard proclaiming the imminent arrival of extraterrestrials, your moment has arrived.

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Election season means that Minnesota cities cannot enforce any ordinances that restrict the size and number of noncommercial signs. The law is designed to make it easier to festoon the landscape with political signs, but it affects any sign that isn’t trying to sell something: boosting your kid’s hockey league, marking the family reunion picnic, or just expressing angst.

When people put something revolting on a sign — like “Muslims get out” that appeared just under the $5.99 cheeseburger special at a Lonsdale, Minn., roadside restaurant last week — others sometimes ask why such a thing is allowed.

But these are the salad days for the freedom to say what you want in big letters. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year established that government can’t regulate the size or number of signs based on what’s written on them.

It started with a pastor named Clyde Reed in Gilbert, Ariz., a fast-growing suburb of Phoenix. Reed’s Good News Community Church is so small that it doesn’t have a building, so he has to put signs directing the congregation of about 25 people to wherever worship services happen to be taking place.

The signs were the typical wire-and-cardboard jobs designed to be shoved into the desert dirt. The town of Gilbert has rules for “temporary directional signs,” such as how long such signs can be displayed, and what can be written on them. The town twice cited Reed, and took one of the signs back to City Hall, where Reed had to come and fetch it.

With the town promising more aggressive enforcement of its sign crackdown, Reed took it to court, arguing that Good News Church’s constitutional rights had been trampled. The federal district judge sided with the town. So did the appeals court.

Then Reed went to Washington. In June 2015, ruling 9-0, the Supreme Court threw out Gilbert’s sign ordinance because it treated noncommercial signs differently based on what message they displayed. The church’s temporary directional signs faced stricter size limitations than ideological or political signs, and the court said that violates the First Amendment because it favors some speech over others.

It didn’t matter if the town merely wanted to protect itself from sign clutter. “Innocent motives do not eliminate the danger of censorship presented by a facially content-based statute, as future government officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s opinion.

The decision instantly invalidated city sign laws across the nation. But not everywhere.

“Minnesota’s actually doing it right,” said John Baker, an authority on sign and billboard law at Greene Espel in Minneapolis.