Well-intentioned sign ordinance proposal a step in the wrong direction

In the first half of the 20th century, Burma Shave pioneered outdoor advertising with its humorous and poetic road signs. Burma Shave’s advertisements became so pervasive that the company didn’t even need to mention its product. As one ad campaign explained, “If you don’t know … whose signs these are … you haven’t driven … very far.”

In the modern era of restrictive sign ordinances, Burma Shave would not have survived. California’s strict city councils and cutthroat county ordinances prevent even the faintest form of billboard blight. You would expect state legislators, the sign-making industry’s biggest benefactors, to understand the political utility and constitutional importance of liberal sign ordinances. Yet, that hasn’t stopped a self-described limited government Republican Assemblyman from proposing the Capitol’s latest attack on political speech.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside, has introduced ACR93, which asks the League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, and Fair Political Practices Commission to develop a model campaign sign ordinance to be used by all of California’s local governments.

There is no disputing that Assemblyman Jeffries’ bill is well-intended. California’s incongruous maze of local sign ordinances causes massive headaches for political campaigns and grassroots activists interested in posting their political views on a 2-by-3-foot piece of plastic. However, ACR93 asks the inmates to run the asylum. After all, it is local governments who enact the most restrictive limitations on political signage.

Take a sign ordinance in South Park, Penn., which prevents residents from posting political yard signs, except for 30 days prior to an election. That includes posting a political sign in your own yard! Violators face a $500-per-day fine. A local Barack Obama supporter, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, is challenging the ordinance on constitutional grounds. Just this week, a U.S. district judge issued a temporary injunction on behalf of the rabble-rousing homeowner.

California’s cities and counties are no better. For example, a recently revised sign ordinance in Simi Valley limits noncommercial signs — including political signs — to only 120 consecutive days. Additionally, the local ordinance requires all signs “be affixed with the contact information for the sign owner, the date of installation of the sign, and the property owner’s permission in the lower right hand corner of the sign.” In Simi Valley, everything — even your mandatory sign disclaimer — must slant to the right.

Cities continue to adopt these restrictive sign ordinances despite repeated Supreme Court precedents upholding the constitutional right to offend your neighbor’s lawn gnomes. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court created the definitive precedent on sign ordinances in City of Ladue v. Gilleo. Margaret Gilleo posted her anti-war, 2-by-3-foot yard sign in violation of a local sign ordinance. A brief but powerful excerpt from the ruling explains why the court protected yard signs as political speech: “Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute.”

Worse than getting the League of Cities involved in sign ordinance regulations, ACR93 urges the FPPC to get in on the act. Yep, the same agency that is so underfunded that in 2006 it closed 225 cases without completing the investigations. Why investigate corruption and bribery when you can ask the FPPC to measure the angle and size of your “Make Love Not War” yard sign?
Anyone involved in political campaigns understands the frustration of a city employee wrongly confiscating your yard sign. Nevertheless, a new model regulation written by tyrannical local government regulators for oppressive cities and counties won’t help the situation. It is safe to say that modern sign ordinances like ACR93 would have kicked Burma Shave to the curb.

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