New Supreme Court Case Debates How Towns Regulate Signs

signcodesBusinesses and organizations across the United States use many different types of signs to help promote their operations — fliers and posters, removable signs used to give directions and advertise sales, and permanent displays affixed to buildings. However, thanks to a new Supreme Court case, you may begin to see more of some items and fewer of others.

On Monday, January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments on a case that could determine how municipal governments regulate where and when signs are posted. A small religious group in the suburban town of Gilbert, AZ has been battling local authorities over their right to use “temporary directional signs” for several years. For seven years, Pastor Clyde Reed and the congregation at the Good News Community Church have been fighting the Gilbert Town Fathers over the signs they use to help direct people to their services. Unlike most places of worship, the Good News Community has no permanent home and regularly moves from location to location. The congregation therefore relies on the non-permanent, non-commercial signs Reed posts to practice their faith.

The town of Gilbert requires that temporary directional signs for events must be no larger than six square feet and can only be posted 12 hours before the occasion. They must then be removed immediately afterwards. However, Reed argues that other non-commercial signs, including political or ideological displays, have been allowed to be bigger and stay up longer. He has therefore accused the town of discrimination and violating his free speech.

Reed’s attorney, David Cortman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, is arguing that his client’s signs defy the town’s system of categorization: they are directional, but they are also political and ideological. For example, since the start of the case, the church has added messages inviting newcomers to their services to the displays. Moreover, Cortman has stated that the very process of determining sign regulations by content is controlling Reed’s free speech and therefore violating the Constitution.

In response, the town’s lawyer, Phillip Savrin, has stated that the rules for temporary directional signs are applied uniformly, and therefore do not restrict Reed’s religious freedom, or that of the Good News Community Church. Savrin says he plans to ask the justices to allow municipalities to have some leeway in determining what is and is not allowed.

As unique as this case might seem, sign regulation is actually a common problem across the country. Local governments are sued over their stipulations frequently, and lower courts often disagree about which constitutional standards apply to these cases. The Gilbert case gives the Supreme Court the chance to settle this discrepancy, but either choice could have a significant impact on how individuals, organizations and even businesses promote their events.

If the town of Gilbert wins the case, for example, it could set a precedent that allows municipal governments to regulate temporary signs based on their content. Because many areas see temporary signs as unattractive clutter that can bring down property values, this could lead to local laws that seriously limit how these objects are used. Many people will then likely have to turn to other methods of advertising their events and offers. Fortunately, this could actually help local economies as businesses and other groups with fixed locations turn to local sign companies to help them creatively convey their information.

“Local sign ordinances vary from municipality to municipality and local governments should have the right to decide what is best for their community,” says Mike Butler, President, Landmark Sign Company. “Often, however, their rules on signage both permanent and temporary are not made with any input from either the business or sign experts who can offer practical advice. Rules cannot account for every unique situation so most municipalities have a “variance’ process to allow for those situations. As long as the basic signage rules are fair and practical and the ability to have a unique request heard and ruled on quickly and equitably then that is all most organizations are wanting.”

In an interview with NPR, Cortman gave a number of suggestions on how local governments could regulate signs without controlling content, such as limiting the number of signs in a given area on a first-come, first-served basis. In contrast, Savrin has stated that allowing municipalities some freedom in how they regulate sign usage allows them to adopt standards that avoid favoring certain groups or ideas, a goal he says matches the goal of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision between these conflicting points by summer.