Court Silences Man Who Painted Protest Sign on His House


William Bowden painted "Screwed by the Town of Cary" on his house after a road-widening project (allegedly) directed runoff onto his property, damaging his North Carolina home. Within hours, zoning officials paid him a visit, ordering him to remove the sign or pay fines of up to $500 for each day of noncompliance.

When Bowden sued, the town argued the sign was a safety hazard for passing motorists. Officials presented no evidence for this assertion—no studies or experts. An estimated 15,000 drivers passed the sign every day for months and, according to court testimony, had precisely zero accidents (p. 16).

Nevertheless, in January a federal appeals court ruled the sign had caused "traffic problems" because:

…the bright fluorescent lettering sprayed across Bowden's home distracted both a Cary police officer and a passing motorist, who "beeped his horn" to get the officer's attention.

The decision upholds the town's sign code, which limits public displays to a certain size—but contains exemptions for art and holiday decorations. Bowden argued the ordinance falls afoul of the First Amendment's requirement that speech restrictions be content neutral. The code improperly permits, for instance, a sign that says "Merry Christmas" but allows officials to censor speech they find objectionable.

The judges, who voted 3-0 for the town, were not impressed. From the hearing:

"If we take your argument, though, aren't we … essentially saying that each house is a billboard for protest signs, and that you could just drive down the street, just every house having something painted that they wanted everybody to see, and nobody could do anything?" asked Judge Max Cogburn…. "The town's totally powerless to stop it, based on size, color, anything else?"

Because we just can't have people who aren't hurting anyone doing whatever they want.

The decision puts the 4th Circuit out of step with other courts, which have struck down similar speech restrictions. Click here and here for Reason coverage of those cases.

No word yet on whether Bowden's estate—he passed away in 2011—will appeal to the Supreme Court. However, a trial court in the same circuit will hear a case with similar facts this week. Norfolk, VA officials are threatening a businessman with $1,000-a-day fines for a banner protesting plans to seize his property via eminent domain. Enforcement is obviously content based—officials had no problem with many signs, some of them much larger, that didn't happen to be criticizing the government.

H/T: Courthouse News