Local Government

Professor Sues Town Over Yard Sign Free Speech

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Free speech: Dangerous to aesthetics.
Credit: kiwikewlio / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Frustrated by demands from town officials, one professor is suing his local government for violating his First Amendment rights by harshly regulating political yard signs.

David Rubin's struggle began in 2006 when government workers of Manlius, New York, told him to remove political signs from his yard.

Rubin is no stranger to free speech issues. He is the former dean of Newhouse School of Communications and current First Amendment law professor at Syracuse University. On Tuesday, the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), a non-profit, filed a lawsuit on the professor's behalf.

According to his hometown's code, "in order to preserve aesthetics and ensure traffic safety," Rubin cannot express his political views on a sign more than 4 square feet. Likewise, he cannot display the sign for more than 30 days before an election or 7 days after. Even if the resident accepts these limitations, Manlius still requires him to get permission from the town clerk in the form of a permit and registration.

"I agree that beautification is important for a town to be concerned about." Rubin told WSYR, a local channel. He added, "It is not as important as free speech."

He pointed out that City of Ladue v. Gilleo, a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case about yard signs and free speech, acts in his favor.

I spoke to William R. Maurer of the Institute for Justice, who said this is part of widespread and alarming mindset among local governments:

This is unfortunately part of a trend across the country. They believe they don't need to have a good idea of what the Constitution requires, what they're limited to do, and the rights that people possess both in property and speech. We expect cops on the beat to know about the Fourth and Fifth Amendment. Employees of these municipal departments don't seem to think the Constitution until after being explicitly told you can't do this. It's not a good basis for a civil society.

Maurer added that, "the government must have a really, really strong reason to stop people from engaging in political speech on their own property. I haven't seen this municipality come up with any justification."

The CCP's press release about the case points out the discriminatory nature of the suburb's code:

The Manlius law and permit requirement are particularly problematic because they are content-based: they single out just one type of speech for prohibition and regulation, namely political expression via lawn signs.

WSYR adds to this point: "For example, real estate signs can be up for months before a property sells as long as it doesn't pose a public safety hazard."

Ed Theobold, the Town Supervisor and one of the defendants in the case, "was surprised by the lawsuit and hopes it can be resolved quickly," according to WSYR, despite admitting that the town never actually responded to Rubin's initial complaint.

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  1. “I agree that beautification is important for a town to be concerned about.” Rubin told WSYR, a local channel. He added, “It is not as important as free speech.”

    This is where President Obama would say we need to balance the right to free speech against the need for city beautification. And he would work for a balanced policy that results in you shutting the fuck up and doing as you’re told.

    1. Or: “I believe in free speech, but…”

      1. He only says “important to be concerned about”, which I suspect was just a framing device so as not to appear to be one of those troublesome fanatics who actually believe in rights.

    2. “Let me be clear: I believe in free speech. I believe that every American has a right to an opinion. But this does not mean that we cannot have some common-sense regulations on free speech.

      There are those who say that we have to choose between freedom of speech and government tyranny. I say we need to reject those voices. I say we the people can decide to impose some reasonable measures that will protect our children’s futures.”

      1. Free speech with reasonable measures:

        Political signs not to exceed 3 cm high by 7 cm wide set back 50 meters from buildings, public streets and rights of way.

        Or some such.

        1. Nobody *needs* 8 inches of signage!

      2. That’s GOOOOD!

      3. Nicely done. That reads exactly like something president shitheel would actually say. *golf clap*

    3. It’s a travesty we’ve become a country ruled by men rather than law.

    4. A better policy would be: “Its fine for neighborhoods and cities to suggest a size for aesthetic reasons, but statute is an inappropriate vehicle for pursuing city beautification.”

  2. Didn’t the Supreme Court declare governments could regulate any form of speech so long as it didn’t regulate content?

    1. Yep, it has to be content-neutral but it also must serve a compelling government interest.

      I’m not sure if aesthetics count.

      1. And it’s subject to strict scrutiny, right? More difficult for the gov. to get its way, unlike the rational basis standard. I wish the government had to meet the strict scrutiny standard vis a vis economic transactions.

    2. Speech can be regulated in the form of “time, place, and manner” restrictions, subject to lots of caveats that I don’t remotely have the time to go into.

      Political speech and speech conducted on private property generally have elevated levels of constitutional protections, however.

    3. Political speech has traditionally been accorded a high level of protection.

  3. Good thing it’s not DeKalb. They would have “tazed his big ass” for the excess signs.

  4. “For example, real estate signs can be up for months before a property sells as long as it doesn’t pose a public safety hazard.”

    Pray-tell, how would a bunch of lawn signs cause a public safety hazard?

    1. Blocking the view at an intersection or causing a distraction for drivers, possibly. Those are both weak rationales, given how strongly the First Amendment is usually enforced.

      1. I’ve always been skeptical of the “distraction” argument. One could declare any sign a distraction since one must take his eyes off the road to read it, even for a split-second.

      2. Blocking the view is (potentially) a real thing. Certainly some people need to trim their damn bushes. (er…)

    2. If it blocks the view of traffic.

      Round about election time, the signs near polling places get to the point its sometimes hard to see traffic when I try to turn onto a state highway. The dinky little signs arent the problem there though, its the big 4X8ft banner signs.

    3. My least favorite thing about election season is all the signs on corners that keep me from seeing oncoming traffic. I suppose I wouldn’t care if I was in a big truck or something, but I’m not.

  5. Free speech is fine, as long as you are willing to and can afford to pay for it.

    The New Murika is rising.

  6. Most cities have restrictions on the size of signs and when political signs can be displayed, and they don’t strike me as unreasonable. But requiring a permit before putting up a sign is ridiculous and open to individual abuse.

    1. That’s why I don’t live in a city.

    2. Yeah, the city would be wise to just give up on the permit requirement rather than fight a losing battle in court. They’ll never win that one. Government actions that work as prior restraints on protected speech are heavily disfavored and rarely upheld.

      1. I have to agree. They’ll probably drop it before it gets to court. But they’ll have to make up that lost revenue some how.

        The residents of that town can look forward to more speeding tickets or whatever else fines the city can impose.

        The number one rule of government. There must always be more revenue, there can never be less.

  7. Employees of these municipal departments federal bureaucracies don’t seem to think the Constitution until after being explicitly told you can’t do this, and then their usual response is FYTW once the Nazgul are done wiping their asses with the constitution.

    FTFY

  8. “the Town Supervisor “was surprised by the lawsuit,”… despite admitting that the town never actually responded to Rubin’s initial complaint

    Read: We ignored the citizen’s complaint, like we always do, but this time something happened. Surprising.

  9. But your crackpot Ron Paul rEVOLution sign will drive down property values, unlike those tasteful HOPE-a-dope signs.

    Won’t somebody think of the soccer moms?

  10. Just like you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, you can’t make political statments of your choosing on your own property. It’s just common sense, people! Haven’t you ever heard of the social contract?

  11. What do you mean by “his” yard? Such antiquated notions 😉

    I’m actually sad that IJ fights this under the umbrella of free speech. This only reinforces the acceptance that there are no property rights anymore.

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