Federal judge halts Michigan city's time limit on yard signs

By The Associated Press
09.20.04

A federal judge last week barred a suburban Detroit city from enforcing a rule prohibiting the display of campaign yard signs more than 30 days before an election.

The ruling came Sept. 17 at the request of a Grosse Pointe Woods supporter of presidential candidate John Kerry who sued the city and argued that the ordinance violated her free-speech rights. The rule also limits the number of signs that can be displayed to one per candidate.

Hundreds, probably thousands, of municipalities across the country have laws limiting when residents may plant campaign yard signs, how big those signs can be, even how many signs can sit in a single yard — restrictions that have almost universally been deemed unconstitutional.

It’s what Randal Morrison, a San Diego attorney who specializes in sign law, calls “the no. 1 most common error in sign ordinances.”

“I would say probably 80% of the sign ordinances in the country have a time limit for displaying political signs,” Morrison said.

Because the ordinances are widespread, conflicts are springing up around the country:

  • City employees in Draper, Utah, pulled up dozens of signs for a candidate for the state school board. Candidates are allowed to post signs only during the final 30 days before the election. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the city.
  • In Glendale, Calif., the City Council suspended an ordinance that limits property owners to one sign per property after the ACLU threatened to sue.
  • In July, a federal judge in Wisconsin struck down a City of Pewaukee ordinance that limited signs to 45 days before the election.

Similar conflicts have arisen in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.

In the Michigan case, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara on Sept. 17 issued a temporary restraining order preventing the town of Grosse Point Woods from enforcing its 30-day restriction on campaign signs before the Nov. 2 election. He refused to issue a similar order for the limit on the number of signs.

“This is great. Now they can put up signs,” said Wendy Wagenheim, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Michigan, which filed the suit on behalf of Mary C. Adzigian.

Wagenheim said the group will continue to fight the suit until the city agrees to change the rule or a judge orders it to change it.

City Attorney Don R. Berschback said the City Council would take up the matter in an executive session at its regular meeting today.

Adzigian put up a “Kerry-Edwards for President” sign in her lawn on Sept. 2. She decided to sue after she received a notice from the city that the sign violated the ordinance and after she learned that violating it was a misdemeanor subject to criminal prosecution.

Berschback and City Councilwoman Victoria A. Granger said the sign ordinance has been in place for decades and is intended to cut back on “visual clutter.”

“But I really can see both sides of the issue. We thought 30 days was a fair compromise between preserving people’s rights and keeping the visual clutter under control,” Granger said. “I guess now we’ll find out if it holds up.”

Earlier this year the ACLU warned southeastern Michigan cities that they risked lawsuits if they enforced sign ordinances restricting political speech.

Meanwhile, conflict has also arisen in Bellefonte, Pa., which passed an ordinance in 1994 limiting campaign signs to the final four weeks before Election Day. Despite the ordinance, a handful of signs have popped up around town.

After seeing a number of Bush/Cheney signs spring up in her neighborhood, Gina Wortman figured it was time to post a Kerry/Edwards sign on her lawn.

“I figured I’m surrounded by Bush/Cheney signs, so I decided it was time to put mine up,” said Wortman. “I read an article in the paper last week that said they weren’t going to be ticketing for signs.”

That’s because Bellefonte’s ordinance already had been challenged by lawyers for the local Democratic Party. Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said the ordinance originally was passed to eliminate visual clutter and to prevent signs from blocking visibility at intersections. Now, he said, the current borough council would look for other ways to achieve those goals.

“I’m very confident in saying council doesn’t want to fight this,” Stewart said. “We don’t want to make it an issue, and we don’t want to be a test case.”

When Joel Smith, of East Stroudsburg, Pa., was warned to take down his Bush/Cheney signs or face a fine, he went to the ACLU. Officials in East Stroudsburg originally stood by their ordinance but backed down Sept. 15 when the ACLU filed a lawsuit.

“If lawsuits are filed, I think the communities are going to cave,” said Robert D. Richards, professor of journalism and law and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University. “I think there’s enough case precedent out there to make them aware that this is a foolish lawsuit to waste taxpayer dollars on.”

East Stroudsburg borough manager Jim Phillips did not return phone calls seeking comment.

No case concerning political yard signs has ever reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but in a 1994 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an ordinance in Gladstone, Mo., that limited signs to 30 days before the election and prohibited illumination of those signs.

“We are not unsympathetic to Gladstone’s concern for controlling the unrestricted proliferation of political signs,” the court wrote. “However, when the remedy the local government chooses conflicts with the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, and in particular the political speech so fundamental to our democracy, such concerns must yield.”

A 1993 decision by the 4th Circuit struck down an Arlington County, Va., ordinance that limited properties to two signs.