Sign of Our Times: SCOTUS to Rule on Political Signs

It appears Michigan’s municipalities are headed for a rewrite of their political sign ordinances, or court — if the American Civil Liberties Union has their way, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court will predictably rule in an upcoming case that such signage is a protected First Amendment right, and not subject to special limitations.

Among the approximately 1800 cities, villages and townships in Michigan, many have sign ordinances with pretty much identical boiler plate language intended to place specific limits on political signs — particularly as to the temporary nature of their display. The reasoning has nothing to do with politics — it’s all about aesthetics and blight control.

The Detroit Free Press reports that Macomb Township recently retracted their restrictive ordinance under threat of possible litigation after receiving a letter from the ACLU. The township had been confining display of political signage to 30 days prior to an election, and seven after.

Ordinances singling-out and regulating political signs rarely survive a legal challenge, yet the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a municipality’s ordinance limiting another form of speech. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, involves a church in Arizona which is under special restrictions regarding its temporary signage to advertise their services. Like many towns across the country, Gilbert has rules unique to political signs, and to non-profit signs, including churches, among others.

Although the high court may have taken this case in part because it involves religious speech, its greater impact will be on political speech.

By way of example…

Here’s an ordinary group of political signs found on August 16th, eleven days after Michigan’s primary election.

political signs

They are placed just a few feet over a township line, and were standing in a municipality that prohibits political signs seven days after an election, but allows them up to four months prior — in this case the general election in November. From the East Bay Charter Township Sign Ordinance:

East Bay Twp political sign ordianance

Had they been placed across the road, in Acme Township, they would have been illegal:

Acme Twp political sign ordiance

And these rules are by no means unique. Here’s a random sampling of a few ordinances, from Plainfield Charter Township, Saginaw Township, and Oakland Township:

Plainfield Twp political sign ordianance

Saginaw Twp political sign ordianance

Oakland Twp political sign ordinance

A search of most any local unit of government will turn-up similar language, with rare exception. Sometimes the exception is even more restrictive, as in the case of Lyon Township, where a permit is required to post political signs. They generously waive the filing fee though:

Lyon Twp permit

Looks like that will soon be one fewer form to fill out, as local officials scramble to repeal these restrictive ordinances in short order.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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