When Politicians Need Signs

Ironically, those who rail against on-premise signs are often those who speak out in favor of them when it comes to personal use. Perhaps it best falls under the NIMBY (not in my backyard) principle. Yes, we want jails and sewer systems, but not in my neighborhood. An analogy of this principle spills over into the sign industry as well: voicing opposition to signs until you need them yourself. Why? Because virtually everyone recognizes the value and effectiveness of signs.

In an April 11, 2018 newspaper article, the Citizen Tribune (Newport, TN) reported “political yard signs have created issues in the city. City Manager James Finchum said he has received numerous complaints because the current sign ordinance is outdated and has not been enforced until recently. The current law provides for a $50 per day fine for violators.”

The irony is revealed in the next paragraph.

“Finchum said Codes Enforcer Mark Robinson has met with hostility from property owners when he confronted them regarding violations, despite the fact candidates agree to the regulations when they qualify as a candidate.”

The article later mentions the possibility of allowing political signs to be placed 90 days before an election, while the current law limits this to 30 days.

Subsequently, once these candidates have been elected, their views on off-premise signage during non-political seasons should be quite revealing.

Surprisingly, the article says nothing about content neutrality or the Reed vs. Gilbert SCOTUS ruling. The simple idea of regulating political signs at all is 100% based on content. A measure on temporary signs would be completely different, but as it stands, the regulation should easily be defeated.

A couple weeks later, the April 23 Marco Eagle, a Marco Island, Florida newspaper, reported significant debate as the island’s city council wrestled with changing its sign code in lieu of the 2015 Reed.

“For years, the courts said we could regulate based on the purpose of the sign, especially with temporary signs. We had things like political signs, etc.,” said attorney Kathy Mehaffey, who was advising the city council. “Under the new rule, we cannot use those concepts anymore. That completely changes how we regulate, and also we have the requirement that we have to provide for non-commercial speech, the ability to for everybody to speak when it’s not commercially related.”

The next paragraph in the article is especially telling.

“Board chairman Erik Brechnitz said it was his preference to send a completed package to the council, but there was some pressure to move the ordinance along ahead of the political season since election signage could be affected.”

Mehaffey warned the city council that virtually all of her clients had changed their sign codes following Reed, and that unwittingly violating Reed is “very easy to do,” the article reported.

The question nonetheless remains. What fear primarily compels a city council members to revise their sign codes? Is it fear of lawsuits for Constitutional violations, or is it fear of how their own future campaign signs might be affected?

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

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