Since we are now in the political season, property owners and residents may wish to demonstrate their support for a particular candidate or political party by placing a yard sign or signs on a front lawn. Most local governments have maintained regulations concerning the size and number of such signs and the duration within which they may be used. Realtors often use temporary signs to promote sales and contractors will often advertise their work at a location with a temporary sign.
The United States Supreme Court in the matter of Reed v. Town of Gilbert has recently entered the arena to determine what may be placed on a “yard sign” and how a temporary sign may be used for different types of communication. The decision did not deal with billboards or other commercial advertising signs.
Reed, a pastor of a church in Arizona, wanted to put temporary signs on church property directing persons to his church’s temporary location each Saturday evening, removing them after services. He was advised by the Town of Gilbert that his proposal violated a local ordinance regarding temporary signs. The town had differing regulations for three types of small yard signs:
Ideological Signs, which include signs communicating a message or ideas for non-commercial purposes;
Political Signs, which include signs designed to influence the outcome of an election called by a public body; and
Temporary Directional Signs, relating to a qualifying event. A “qualifying event” is defined as any assembly, gathering, activity or meeting sponsored, arranged or promoted by a particular group.
The problem in Gilbert was that different types of signs were regulated differently based on their content.
In summary, the Court ruled the government cannot play favorites when it comes to free speech. The government cannot single out one form of speech over another based on how worthy the government thinks it is. One commentator noted “the government cannot target one form of speech with severe restrictions while allowing more speech for others in similar circumstances.” The Court determined that the Town of Gilbert’s ordinance was unconstitutional but it did not set any clear guidelines on how local municipalities should allow free speech but balance it against the aesthetic burden placed upon communities which may have unlimited signage in residential and other communities.
All of this has led to a great deal of confusion among local municipalities as to how to adjust their temporary sign ordinances to comply with the ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Our suggestion is that if you wish to place a sign or signs in your yard, you check with your local township or borough office to determine what, if any, regulations may apply concerning the type of sign which you may wish to install.
– Bill Brennan