Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Campaign signs: Free speech, nuisance, or both?

  Isn’t the display of a campaign sign a quintessential example of free speech, protected by the First Amendment?  You’d never know it from the breadth of American local laws regulating campaign signs and their removal.  In the city of Tucson, for example, rules limit political signs in residential areas to six square feet, require that they be “kept in a presentable and safe condition,” and demand that they be removed within 15 days after a general election.  Across the nation, local governments and private citizens are taking special pains to remove signs, now that the election is over.  Enforcement of conformity is always popular in today’s suburban America.   

Signscampaign    In one sense, political signs are a quaint throwback to a simpler world.  They are perhaps the “lowest tech” form of widespread communication in our society.  They are also almost content-free:  Most signs consist of simply a blue and white background (red is still associated with socialism, even in this area of “red/blue” discourse) and the name of the candidate, often without party affiliation.  As such, the “speech” involved is hardly more complex than a grunt.  But in this era of advertising-is-everything, advocates continue to believe that simple repetition of a name can help a candidate in the balloting.   

   But if political signs are indeed free speech (see City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 312 U.S. 43 (1994) (striking down a prohibition against signs in residential neighborhoods)), on what basis are cities such as Tucson justified in demanding that signs be removed within 15 days?  Is a possible justification that, after the election, the law can presumptively assume that keeping the sign up is not an expression of a political opinion, but rather simply an expression of sloth? 


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