Local Government

Sign Regulations and the Threat to Free Speech

City planners won't let private citizens put bright red signs on their own lawns.

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Stop sign
Wikimedia commons

In 2006, auto shop owner Wayne Weatherbee decided to expand his business by purchasing a vacant lot that had once held another auto shop dating back to the 1940s. But zoning officials in the city of Clermont, Florida, determined that Weatherbee's plans for the lot clashed with the city's aesthetic agenda and zoning regulations, so they asked him to first obtain a special permit before doing what he wanted with his own property.

Rather than apply for said permit, Weatherbee posted a dozen signs on his lot criticizing city officials, including the city manager and chief of police. One sign proclaimed: "Intimidation/Harassment—Selective Law Enforcement—False Arrests—False Documents—What's Next? At Least They Haven't Taken My Freedom Of Speech YET!"

Predictably, the city's next move was to take away Weatherbee's freedom of speech.

Since the 1950s, the United States Supreme Court has unfortunately held that basic constitutional liberties should yield to the government's self-proclaimed interest in tailoring local aesthetics. Writing for a unanimous Court in 1954, Justin William O. Douglas upheld Congress' decision to eliminate a supposedly blighted African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

"The concept of public welfare is broad and inclusive," wrote Douglas, and it includes "aesthetic as well as monetary values." It was the government's prerogative to "determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled," according to Douglas.

Granted broad license by this and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, it's no surprise that local governments throughout the country have used aesthetics to justify all sorts of bullying, harassment and censorship in the name of the public good. Small businesses often bear the brunt of local aesthetics controls, as city officials seek to impose their own views of what looks and feels good on the community at large. But even with the Supreme Court's endorsement of such nonsense, the lower courts still occasionally recognize First Amendment restrictions on the state's aesthetic brutalism.

In December 2009, Clermont cited Weatherbee for violating city ordinances governing the display of signs on commercial property. All signs required permits unless they fell into an exempt category. There was an exemption for "temporary political signs," but that only applied to "a sign or poster advertising either a candidate for public office or a political cause subject to election." It did not cover Weatherbee's signs, which attacked public officials outside of the electoral process.

The Clermont Code Enforcement Board decided to fine Weatherbee $75 for every day he refused to take down the sign. His response was to file suit, and in March of this year, he finally prevailed. U.S. Senior District Judge William Terrell Hodges ruled in Weatherbee's favor, finding that Clermont's sign code was unconstitutional. Hodges chided city officials for arbitrarily distinguishing between purportedly political messages and other types of signs.

The code was "not narrowly drawn to satisfy a compelling government interest," wrote Hodges.

For their part, city officials put forth aesthetic considerations as the justification for censoring Weatherbee. And indeed, Hodges did acknowledge that "the City has the right to generally promote aesthetics." But there was no explanation—either in the code or from city officials—concerning how the censorship of non-commercial political signs accomplished that goal. Clermont restricted businesses to one "non-commercial sign" while allowing an unlimited number of signs for other purposes, such as directional or parking information. The city could not explain why some signs were inherently more visually desirable than other signs that just happened to advertise messages critical of city governance.

Unfortunately, Weatherbee's victory is the exception rather than the norm—especially in cases where such controls are justified on the additional ground of historic preservation. As Justice Byron White observed in a 1981 Supreme Court opinion, a city's "interests in aesthetics and historical authenticity are sufficiently important that the First Amendment" should not stand in the way. In other words, while the government may not impose content-based restrictions on the narrow category of political speech, it is free to discriminate against any artistic or aesthetic viewpoint with which it finds fault.

In practice, this has often yielded absurd results. In Thomas Jefferson's hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, a Board of Architectural Review appointed by the city council has near-total aesthetic control over specific buildings and roads designated as historic. In 2012, the board forced local artist Matt Pamer to change his design for a mural on the side of a restaurant. The problem? Pamer wanted to use too many colors. The board demanded that Pamer eliminate the use of "bright" reds and yellows and confine himself to a palette of more toned-down blues and greens.

The board justified its actions by citing the need to preserve the historic aesthetics of the West Main Street neighborhood where Pamer painted his mural. But in reality, there is little historic or visually interesting about the area, which is merely a corridor between Jefferson's University of Virginia and Charlottesville's downtown shopping district. West Main Street's history was that of a stomping ground for car dealerships and repair shops until recent gentrification attracted trendier restaurants and artists like Pamer. (Indeed, the building that features Pamer's mural is currently an upscale seafood restaurant.)

Pamer and his Charlottesville patrons went out of their way to appease the city and not complain about infringements of their free speech and property rights. But in other cities, local businesses are taking a stronger stand against aesthetic controls. The Institute for Justice recently reported on unrest in Raleigh, North Carolina, where businesses are working to change the city's draconian sign laws. Among other things, the city limits all signs to just four colors. One businessman told the Raleigh News & Observer that such a policy "makes the signage very ineffective, and it becomes very homogeneous."

A city councillor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, disagreed.

"The sign ordinance has gone a long way to making our city attractive," said Baldwin in a statement.

In the eyes of government officials—for whom bright colors and unlicensed protest signs are intolerable symbols of urban blight—liberty will never be as attractive or aesthetically pleasing as conformity. True beauty seems to come from an unquestioned reverence for an arbitrary point in history, according to the state.

The justices of the Supreme Court—sitting in their "classical Corinthian" temple in the planned city of Washington, D.C.—may not see the constitutional problem with any of this. But the First Amendment is not just about protecting newspaper editorials or campaign advertisements. It applies to all forms of individual and artistic expression, no matter how bright the colors used.

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  1. Historical preservation laws are among the most egregious of local petty tyrannies.

    1. In SF (natch) there is the infamous ‘windshield survey’ of historical structures.
      You find out if they chose yours during the drive-by when you apply for a permit to alter it.

    2. Yes, and there is no more petty or mindless tyrant than local politicians

  2. OT Ayn Rand’s Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone

    “You’re a wizard, Harry,” Hagrid said. “And you’re coming to Hogwarts.”

    “What’s Hogwarts?” Harry asked.

    “It’s wizard school.”

    “It’s not a public school, is it?”

    “No, it’s privately run.”

    “Good. Then I accept. Children are not the property of the state; everyone who wishes to do so has the right to offer educational goods or services at a fair market rate. Let us leave at once.”

    1. “He hated us for our freedom,” Ron said.

      “No, Ron,” Harry said. “He hated us for our free markets.”

      Hermione ached with desire for the both of them to master her, but nobody paid her any attention. They had empires to build.

      Nice.

      1. Hermione ached with desire for the both of them to master her, but nobody paid her any attention. They had empires to build.

        So it’s kind of like the real one, then?

        1. The real Harry Potter, or the real Ayn Rand?

          Either way, yes.

    2. That chick seems to have a strange obsession with Rand.

      1. From what I’ve read it’s a much gentler ribbing than I’m used to seeing.

      2. Her commenters are pretty impressed with themselves.

        sednarea51 ? 40 weeks ago
        I received “Atlas Shrugged” as a birthday present a few years ago from a coworker, and thought, oh what the hell, let me page through it. Opened a page at random and it was a rape scene. Upon which I delicately laid it down on my table so I would not give into the urge to throw it against the wall.

        I apologized to my coworker, so sorry, haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so busy. Then I waited until she left for her new job and immediately traded it in for “Siddhartha” and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”.

        1. Opened a page at random and it was a rape scene.

          I find that highly unlikely. If she’d said “Opened a page at random and it was an incredibly boring monologue that went on for several pages.” I would’ve believed her.

          1. There’s no rape in Atlas Shrugged. I don’t think there’s even any sex scenes at all. There’s a D/Sish sex scene in The Fountainhead that is confused with rape by idiots who have never had fun sex in their lives.

            1. IIRC, there is at least one sex scene in Atlas Shrugged and it’s between Dagny and Hank Rearden.

            2. 2 “sex” scenes in AS, actually. Not particularly rapey given we’re seeing it from the lady’s internal mental perspective (and she’s totally willing).

            3. Dagny has rough sex with everyone.

              1. But no rape.

                The “rape” scene is in The Fountainhead, as Warty pointed out.

                1. The “rape” scene is in The Fountainhead, as Warty pointed out.

                  Agreed, but if you’re coming from a “all sex is rape” perspective and you read a scene where a woman is submitting to a dominant man, you’re going to get your panties in a twist about the scenes in AS.

                  What’s funny is a know a romance novel author and she’ll tell you directly that’s the kind of scene (AS, haven’t read Fountainhead so I don’t know) that sells books, so there are plenty of women out there who find reading about such things a turn on, which makes calling the scenes in AS rape extra silly.

                  1. The Fountainhead scene is pretty damn close to rape. She wanted it, so I would say it wasnt, but to the NO means NO crowd, that wont fly.

                    Atlas Shrugged, not so much.

                    1. The Fountainhead scene is pretty damn close to rape. She wanted it

                      That’s not close at all to rape, if it is between two people who know each other well and can discern that there is consent, which IIRC was the case.

                      Sort of like the alleged rape scene on the altar in Game of Thrones a few episodes back — the words “no” coming out of a woman’s mouth doesn’t constitute rape if the man knows her well and can read body language and tone of voice and can in fact discern whether she consents.

                  2. that’s the kind of scene that sells books

                    http://www.celebritynetworth.c…..net-worth/

                    80 million dollars.

            4. “There’s no rape in Atlas Shrugged.”

              You are not taking into account what this emotionally disturbed moron is using as a definition for rape.

              1. Or the fact that Dominique flat out says “he raped me” in a later discussion of the event.

                1. “She read it and smiled. She thought, if they knew…those people…that old life and that awed reverence before her person…I’ve been raped…I’ve been raped by some redheaded hoodlum from a stone quarry….I, Dominique Francon….Through the fierce sense of humiliation, the
                  words gave her the same kind of pleasure she had felt in his arms”

                2. “Do you wish to ‘know everything? I want to tell you. I met him when he was working in a granite quarry. Why not? You’ll put him in a chain gang or a jute mill. He was working in a quarry. He didn’t ask my consent. He raped me. That’s how it began. Want to use it? Want to run it in the Banner”

                  1. Rand herself said of the scene:

                    “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.”

                    Make of that what you will, bearing in mind that sexual mores in 1943 were just a wee bit different than today.

                    1. Well, I can see that, to a point. Dominique plainly tried to seduce Roark in an earlier scene, thus demonstrating an interest. But, to someone who skimmed past that part, the scene and her later comments come off as problematic at best.

  3. Oh, and a real head-scratcher for those who have some concept of supply and demand:

    “The public doesn’t seem ready to embrace hydrogen-fueled cars, but car makers can profit more with them.” (Uh, what?!)
    “Hydrogen-fueled cars face uncertain market in California”
    http://www.sfgate.com/news/art…..519890.php

    1. “zero emission vehicles”

      Ummm, where does the hydrogen come from?

      1. Unicorn farts. Duh.

      2. Personall, I think that hydrogen powered cars COULD be a great improvement. I don’t worry much about global warming, so emissions aren’t an issue for me, but IF hydregem cas can ge made to work, it seems to me that broadening the number of sources we tap for transport fuel might well be a very good thing.

        Of course, there are issues. There always are. I would certainly like to know where we are going to get the electricity to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. I’d like to know what will be done with the by-products of that operation (water always contains other substances; what happens to those whentyenwater is broken down?).

        It may be that a hydrogen car is as senseless as a battery powered car is now (absent both a major improvement in battery tech, and a good way of recycling batteries when they wear out). But I think it’s worth looking into.

        1. I have no problem with it, except that they are now being forced on us.
          I don’t mind e-vehicles either; UPS and other urban delivery services are perfect for them. Short runs, pretty much weight-insensitive, park o’nite to charge.
          Tesla, OTOH, makes as much sense as a nuke-powered airplane.

        2. Most fuel hydrogen comes from petroleum, actually; it’s much cheaper than electrolysis, though there is a limit to the purity you can get.

          The big problem with hydrogen as a motor fuel would be distribution. Unlike gasoline it’s violently reactive with air at any concentration and no spark necessary; hydrogen tanker trucks would essentially be bombs on wheels, and if you add shielding in an attempt to make them safe you kill the energy efficiency of the truck. So you’re going to need pipelines to every refill station.

          1. Unlike gasoline it’s violently reactive with air at any concentration and no spark necessary; hydrogen tanker trucks would essentially be bombs on wheels

            That is all wrong.

            1. Nothing better to do tonight either Tulpa?

        3. ” I would certainly like to know where we are going to get the electricity to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen.”

          Apparently not from coal fired plants.

          Because so much more energy is required in this process than you get out of it it is, like all greenie bullshit, a really dumb idea.

      3. One of my favorites was hearing a commercial a few years ago for some car calling itself a “partial zero-emission vehicle”.

        1. PZEV is a thing.

          Blame CA, I know I do.

    2. “”Hydrogen-fueled cars face uncertain market in California”

      Nonsense. It is not uncertain at all.

    3. I hadn’t heard that. What fool wrote that, some eviro whack job?

    1. What, there’s no more NASCAR??!

    2. The laser focus on rigidity is kinda weird. Hell, you can only have one person in motion in the backfield. ONE!

      1. But you can have 6 people over the wall in NASCAR!

    3. football embedded itself into the national psyche because it captured Ronald Reagan’s America, and it may be thriving among its core fans because it is a last redoubt of white male values now being threatened by changing national demographics and a more tolerant mindset.

      Mmmmmkay.

      JUN 1, 2014
      3:31 PM UTC
      White men owning black players. Modern day slavery. Too similar to the Roman christian/lions games for me.
      Posted by njglea | Report as abusive

      lolz

      1. White men owning black players. Modern day slavery.

        Can someone enslave me for ten million a year? Please? Pretty please? I’ll even play in Cleveland. Or Jacksonville.

        Too similar to the Roman christian/lions games for me.

        wut.

      2. football embedded itself into the national psyche because it captured Ronald Reagan’s America

        Yeah, football was nowhere until 1980. And black people obviously hate it.

  4. “The public doesn’t seem ready to embrace hydrogen-fueled cars, but car makers can profit more with them.”

    Well a hybrid Chevy something-or-other costs twice as much as the earth-destroying model. So, yeah; HIGHER PRICE = HIGHER PROFIT.

    QED, motherfucker.

  5. OT (from LewRockwell), but something to lob at the next person who argues that some Columbine-like event justifies more chipping away at the 2nd A:

    “When police officers or American soldiers gun down people as innocent of wrongdoing as these six victims of Elliot Rodger, few if any complaints are heard. The gun-control crowd does not offer up such killings as evidence for the need to rid the world of guns.”

    1. Well, duh. The problem there isn’t the guns, it’s the need for better TOP MEN.

  6. I would certainly like to know where we are going to get the electricity to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen.

    From the wall socket, duh.

  7. I’m inclined to view the Charlottesville case a little differently. Buying property in a well-known historic district is a lot like buying property subject to a home-owners’ association.

    1. No it isnt.

      I mean, yeah, there are similarities, but there are also differences. And I have problems* with deed restrictions too.

      *The big one being that the original owner still owns some of the value of the land. They should have to pay [sld]property tax[/sld] on the difference between the encumbered and unencumbered value of the property.

      1. And just for fun and to piss off Bo, I refer you to my arguments with DanT over this issue.

        1. And just for fun and to piss off Bo, I refer you to my arguments with DanT

          supra?

          1. 10 years supra.

            Maybe more like 8.

            When did DanT leave us?

            1. Maybe he never did.

  8. As Justice Byron White observed in a 1981 Supreme Court opinion, a city’s “interests in aesthetics and historical authenticity are sufficiently important that the First Amendment” should not stand in the way. In other words, while the government may not impose content-based restrictions on the narrow category of political speech, it is free to discriminate against any artistic or aesthetic viewpoint with which it finds fault.

    “We’re not fining you for the content of the message. We’re fining you because that sign is ugly. Totally different.”

    1. There is no difference between political expression, economic expression and artistic expression.

      Any expression is all 3.

  9. From my neck of the woods (one township over):

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/…..ican-flag/

  10. So all the comments on a sign post – are about rape and alternative fueled cars?

    And THIS is “reason”? Wow, y’all are displaying the habits of right wing kooks! No wonder Reason and the other Koch stuff is/was spinoff the John Birch Society.

    What I find laughable is this stupid article about some small signage issue – when the big friends of the Kochs, Reasons and the Cato are doing things which should be a little higher on the radar……like trying to shut down Free Speech in the form of plain ‘ole protests!

    http://www.newsobserver.com/20…..p=/99/108/
    http://www.wral.com/despite-ne…../13655108/

    Congrats to you all. You have bought government in the “free market”…..

    1. Wow, y’all are displaying the habits of right wing kooks!

      On Sundays when there is no open thread or PM links thread off topic discussion takes place in whatever the most recent thread is. Very kooky, and uh, right wing, yes.

      What I find laughable is this stupid article about some small signage issue – when the big friends of the Kochs, Reasons and the Cato are doing things which should be a little higher on the radar……like trying to shut down Free Speech in the form of plain ‘ole protests!

      Excellent point, except for the dearth of anything in your sources having anything to do with Reason, Cato or the Koch brothers.

      Also, wasn’t it you the other day saying that Reason was a right wing kook machine for suggesting that throwing a journalist out of the 9/11 memorial was out of line? Which is it?

      1. A broken clock is right 2x a day.

        What matters is what people do when the hard choices come along. The Kochs are not stupid. They know very well that supporting a defeat of Obama and the Dems (which is their life goal) means more war, more authoritarianism and more money in their bank accounts…

        If you think, for one second, that they are benevolent – you are being foolish, IMHO.

        While you can point to some small issues where they disagree with mainstream GOP’ers, the bottom line is that 95% plus of their money and actions go toward making sure those people – and their policies – are governing us.

        Try as you may, you cannot dispute those facts.

        1. I think the best thing about many of your posts is how they are wholly devoid of facts. It’s pretty much just you throwing around your meaningless anecdotes and comparing the rest of the country to your glorious northeastern Volksrepublik.

          Seriously, do you have nothing better to do than shit up a site that you demonstrably aren’t smart enough to understand? Are you banned from Huffington Post or Daily Kos or something?

    2. “What I find laughable is this stupid article about some small signage issue – when the big friends of the Kochs, Reasons and the Cato are doing things which should be a little higher on the radar……like trying to shut down Free Speech in the form of plain ‘ole protests!”

      What’s more laughable is the stupidity of your comment.
      Please, oh ignoramus, give us one cite where anyone named Kock, the Reason Foundaion or magazine or Cato did anything of the sort.
      Just one, you lying piece of shit, just one.

      1. “‘give us one cite where anyone named Kock, the Reason Foundaion or magazine or Cato did anything of the sort.”

        Well, show me one atom of radiation or molecule of Koch pollution which caused cancer? You can’t, so it doesn’t exist, right?

        Big news – the era of “I can’t see it, so it doesn’t exist” passed a couple hundred years ago.

        It’s quite simple. The Kochs and their friends and many astroturf groups have spent hundreds of millions in the last election cycles trying to both beat almost ANY democRAT and instill their “perfect” slaves in the forms of the current NC legislature, Scott Walker and others.

        Why would they spend all their time and massive amounts of money fighting for folks who act like dictators?

        The whole Libertarian thing, IMHO, has become nothing but a front to pull some disaffected Americans into their game. The real game is buying the government – which they are winning. Y’ll are helping them greatly.

        You should try – just for a minute – to judge people by their actions. Smooth talk? That’s called a con.

        1. Surprise surprise, you can’t provide proof.

        2. I think you might need help. I have this alarming mental image of you, a half naked old man precariously balanced on a folding chair surrounded by heavily marked copies of Infowars printouts and piss filled soda bottles cackling and muttering to yourself through your years old beard as you gleefully bang out your left wing loonie screeds and make up stories about your business acumen and life experiences.

          Seriously though, take advantage of that healthcare you’re always raving about. There is help for you.

    3. Wow, Sevo was right the other day, you really ARE worse than Tony. It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucking sad.

  11. This hit close to home for me. I live in the next town over.

    It seems that the city officials don’t like having an auto repair shop downtown. If so, then they can get together as private citizens, and raise enough money to buy him out. And if he doesn’t want to sell, boo-hoo for them.

  12. My neighbor does chainsaw carvings and decorates his lawn with them has had them for years. the retarded short-sighted commie-libs hell bent on turning our farming community into the next suburbia told him he was in violation of city ord about trash on his lawn.. these were gorgeous sculptures and he is a retired vet who earns his cash selling his art
    they decided to fine him 10,000.00 a day if he didn’t remove them
    long story short he uses my barn now to stash what he hasn’t sold but its fucking bullshit
    we live in the middle of nowhere, our “town center” is a community center/ firehouse/ courthouse/ community church and 2 massive sprawling farms
    can’t wait to shellac them in November fucking statist scum

    1. So if the guy next door to him decides that junk cars all painted up with peace symbols are “art”, he too should have the right to fill his lawn with them?

      And you get to decide where the density means that you are NOT allowed?

      You sound like a a statist – i.e. – YOU get to decide. The only problem here is that you are not in charge…which I am sorta glad of.

  13. Start working from home with Google. I make money in my ?p?r? tim?! I have been unemployed f?r months but n?w i m??? up to $100/day on the computer. pop over to this website http://www.Fox81.com

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