A Sign of the Times – Local Regulation of Campaign Signs

by Christina M. Cameron

When election season arrives, it can seem that campaign signs grow like weeds. To some, these signs are unnecessary clutter, unsightly eyesores or even dangerous and distracting additions to our roadways. To others, they represent the electoral process at its most basic level; the sign of a robust and exciting American electoral tradition. Cities are frequently caught in the middle. In attempting to respond to both points of view, city officials and planning professionals may quickly find themselves caught in a tangledknot of constitutional considerations where there seem to be no clear answers. Stutz Artiano Shinoff and Holtz, APC, has developed a list of eight principles to guide cities as they respond to this quadrennial flurry of inquiries from citizens whose attention is inevitably drawn to campaign signs during election years.

  1. Regulation of noncommercial signs, including campaign signs, falls within the protective umbrella of the First Amendment.
  2. Cities are generally permitted to ban all signs posted on public property.
  3. Cities generally may not ban noncommercial (expressive) signs on private property.
  4. Cities which allow signs on public property should not distinguish between commercial signs, noncommercial signs, and campaign signs but may establish a consistent system of time, place and manner regulations in furtherance of a legitimate and substantial government interest such as aesthetics, visual harmony and safety.
  5. Cities may limit the size of individual signs, the total square footage of all signs posted on any one property, and may limit how long signs may be left up.
  6. Cities may not limit the amount of time before an election that campaign signs may be posted nor may they limit the number of signs for any given cause or candidate on any one property.
  7. Requiring permits, fees and deposits may be unconstitutional if they would discourage political speech, are unreasonably high, or embargo substantial campaign funds until after an election.
  8. A city’s ability to remove signs without notifying the owner is limited particularly on private property. If a city prohibits signs on public property, it can remove signs posted on public property at any time, but must remove all signs and not single out campaign signs while leaving other commercial or non-commercial signs in place.