When political lawn signs shout too loudly

The size of the political message has become an issue, pitting freedom of speech vs. local codes.

Uri Friedman
Political signage: State Representative William Lantigua (D) of Lawrence, Mass., believes a local ordinance banning political signs larger than six square feet is unconstitutional.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

In this manufacturing hub 25 miles north of Boston, controversy is growing by the square foot.

That's because Lawrence bans political signs larger than six square feet. And in the last few weeks, the city has issued citations for some 30 campaign signs – each measuring 32 square feet – that supporters of state Rep. William Lantigua (D) placed on their private property. Representative Lantigua believes the ordinance violates freedom of speech, and has approached residents who received citations about challenging the law in court.

From Highlands, N.C., to Hawthorne, N.J., local ordinances governing political signs seem to be attracting legal scrutiny more frequently these days. At press time, Hawthorne's borough council was expected to vote on a settlement with the ACLU regarding the topic, according to ACLU-NJ deputy legal director Jeanne LoCicero. The agreement would require Hawthorne to repeal or amend a law restricting homeowners from displaying political signs more than 32 days before an election or seven days after.

In a twist on the Hawthorne case, the dispute in Lawrence revolves around dimensional rather than durational limits on political signage.

Lantigua has taken down a few signs.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the intersection between political and commercial advertising, the threat political expression poses to community well-being, and the role a sign's dimensions play in conveying political messages.

"If you have more onerous restrictions on political signs than on advertising, the argument is that political signs are being discriminated against," says David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "But the case law is not uniform, and it's enough of a muddled area that each side will have some fodder to fire off if it goes to litigation."

The city is justified in treating political and commercial advertising differently because political signs appear in residential neighborhoods while commercial signs are confined to the business district and must gain approval from a local planning board, says Myles Burke, Lawrence's commissioner of inspectional services.

Opponents of the law should take their grievances to city council and comply with the ordinance in the run-up to the Sept. 16 primary between Lantigua and his opponent, Marcos Devers, rather than look for a test case to launch a court challenge, Mr. Burke adds.

"Challenges and changing of the ordinance should come first before violations," he says. "You're putting a lot of supporters and individual owners of property at risk of some serious [$1,000-a-day] fines if the court and judge see it our way."

Though the debate in Lawrence was touched off when a member of Mr. Devers's campaign complained that Lantigua's signs were oversized, Burke's office has recently changed its approach and begun issuing citations – including a couple for Devers signs - based on violations of the state building code rather than size restrictions; according to city rules, people installing any sign larger than eight square feet on buildings must obtain a permit in the interest of public safety.

In Lantigua's view, the new strategy is an underhanded way to sidestep the shaky legal grounds on which the city's political sign ordinance stands. He says he's never seen the state building code applied to political signs before.

"I think this is one of those cases when I have to stand up and say, 'You know what? That ordinance, it is unconstitutional and you need to modify it,'" he says.

The legal precedent that lower courts typically cite when ruling on political signs is the 1994 US Supreme Court case City of Ladue v. Gilleo. In a unanimous decision, the court struck down a law prohibiting signs at private residences and described residential yard signs as "a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important."

The court declared that ordinances can regulate the time, place, or manner of political speech only if they also enable residents to express themselves through "ample alternative channels for communication."

"Is the 'time, place, and manner' restriction [in Lawrence] appropriately related to some fairly urgent government need?" asks Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried.

According to some city officials, one pressing government need is upholding community safety and aesthetics.

"The signs that are being put up are unsightly and obstruct motorist sightlines when coming out of certain streets," City Council President Patrick Blanchette said in an e-mail interview.

But Councilman Michael Fielding, who sent a letter to the city attorney Monday asking him to issue a clear directive to the city council on the ordinance, thinks the controversy in Lawrence has its roots in something more mundane than the US Constitution: a personal conflict between Lantigua and Devers that may have motivated Devers supporters to report Lantigua's signs to authorities.

This year's campaign is a rematch of a 2006 race in which Devers's name was removed from the primary ballot after Lantigua questioned his residency status.

The Devers campaign did not return repeated calls and e-mails for this article.

"I ran for political office and used oversized signs all the time," Councilman Fielding says. "We [local politicians] have all used oversized signs, and no one's ever complained."

Citations for oversized signs are not unprecedented in the city, however; just last year, they triggered the removal of signs in a congressional race.

In the streets of Lawrence, which has so many foreign-born residents that it is nicknamed "Immigrant City," opinions on the potential court challenge are mixed.

Sitting on a bench outside City Hall, Betty Diaz said big signs can be visually pleasing to voters, adding that Lantigua has the Constitution on his side.

But her friend Ana Sosa quickly scolds her in rapid Spanish, arguing that large signs disturb the community.

"It bothers her because it's Lantigua," Ms. Diaz says, referring to Ms. Sosa's partisan leanings. "If it was Marcos Devers it would be different."

It's always difficult for politicians to design signs that are eye-catching but not off-putting, says Michael Franz, a political science professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

"You want people to think you are a front-runner, but you don't want them to think you're sullying the neighborhood by putting this monstrosity on someone's lawn," he says.

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