The Freedom of Speech and Political Signs
What is the freedom of speech? What is the freedom of expression?
The freedom of speech is one of the fundamental freedoms or “civil rights” guaranteed to citizens by the United States Constitution. It is one of the freedoms of expression. Freedom of expression is considered to be the set of freedoms that are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution: the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of association, the freedom to assemble peaceably, and the freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances.
Some civil rights advocates have long claimed that political free speech is at the center of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Municipal political “sign” ordinances often violate First Amendment rights
As an election approaches, it is commonplace for people to place political signs in their yards. For instance, a person might put up signs for several candidates, as well as a sign asking people to “vote no” on a certain levy issue. Most people who wish to put such signs in their yards do not think twice before doing so. In some municipalities, however, ordinances or zoning regulations either prohibit or limit the posting of political signs.
Critics of “sign” ordinances say that the posting of political signs is a form of expression that is protected by the First Amendment. It can also be argued that such ordinances infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the candidates themselves. In defending the ordinances, city officials often contend that prohibiting signs or limiting the time that signs can be posted is necessary for aesthetic or traffic safety reasons. Opponents of the ordinances counter that the protection of political speech is more important than aesthetics.
In 1994, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a city law prohibiting signs at private homes was unconstitutional. The Court also struck down a city ordinance in another case because residential yard signs provided an important and unique means of communication.
In September 2004, a federal judge prohibited a city from enforcing a time limit on campaign yard signs more than 30 days before an election. The judge agreed with the voter that the ordinance violated her right to free speech.
Homeowner associations can impose political sign restrictions or bans
For the most part, cities and municipalities cannot implement “sign” ordinances or regulations that restrict a person’s right to free political speech. To do so would be considered “state action” that is subject to the provisions of the Constitution. Because homeowner associations and condominium associations are not state actors, they are not constrained by the Constitution. Accordingly, they can implement–and enforce–political sign regulations and rules without fear of running afoul of the First Amendment.