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A homeowner in Missouri is challenging a local ordinance that only allows people to have a single two-sided sign in their yards.
The small city of Bel-Nor, Missouri is at least temporarily blocked from enforcing a local law that restricts homeowners from displaying more than one sign at a time on their property, under a federal appeals court ruling issued on Monday.
Lawrence Willson, who owns and lives in a single-family home in Bel-Nor, sued the city in January 2018, alleging the ordinance trammeled his free speech rights and other constitutional protections. The city cited him because he had three signs in his yard.
One said “Black Lives Matter,” another “Clinton Kaine” and the third “Jason Kander U.S. Senate.” Each of the signs is about 18 by 24 inches, according to Tony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, who is representing Willson.
"In our view, a one-sign restriction is too restrictive of speech,” Rothert said by phone on Monday.
He went on to describe yard signs as an important form of speech with a “communicative value that is unmatched” in other mediums.
“It's different than buying a billboard, or taking out an ad in the paper, or even writing a letter to the editor, to put what you believe in front of your home,” Rothert said.
Bel-Nor, with about 1,500 residents, is located on the outskirts of St. Louis.
The city has argued that its ordinance is “content-neutral” and regulates all sorts of signs in the same way, and is therefore not subject to heightened legal scrutiny. It has cited traffic safety, especially preventing distractions for drivers, as a main consideration with the sign restrictions.
Bel-Nor’s lawyer on Monday did not return an emailed request seeking comment.
A federal district court last March denied Willson’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented Bel-Nor from enforcing the law, at least while the court case played out.
But a three-judge panel for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has now reversed that decision.
In an 11-page ruling, the court said Willson is likely to succeed on the merits of his free speech challenge under the First Amendment against the local government ordinance and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in the case Reed v. Town of Gilbert ruled that a sign code in the Arizona town that set specific guidelines for different types of signs was unconstitutional.
That ruling opened the door for new scrutiny of local sign regulations and prompted some local governments to revisit their policies.
A Bel-Nor police officer in June 2017 left Willson a written warning that by displaying his three signs he was violating part of the city code, according to the complaint Willson filed in federal district court.
The code, at that time, limited residential property to one “political advertising” sign and said “political signs” had to be removed within 15 days after an election.
Willson's complaint also says that on the same day he received the notice officers left written warnings for other Bel-Nor residents who had “Clinton Kaine” signs displayed on their lawns.
Lawyers for Willson later told the city the ordinance was unconstitutional based on Reed. Bel-Nor’s mayor at that time contacted Willson after this and informed him the city was planning on rescinding the ordinance, according to the complaint.
Willson left his signs standing.
That September the city’s board of alderman scrapped sign regulations it had on the books, but passed a new ordinance—Ordinance 983—which is at the center of the current court dispute.
Under this local law, a residential property owner is allowed to display one stake-mounted sign with no more than two sign faces. It also prohibited signs affixed to buildings, fences, trees and garage doors, among other places, and those set in the interior of a window.
Signs larger than six square-feet were also banned, as were those that flash or move.
A sign is defined in the ordinance as an outdoor poster, object or other device that someone uses “to advertise, identify, display, direct or attract attention to an object, person, institution, organization, business, product, service, event, idea, belief or location by any means, including but not limited to words, letters, figures, designs, symbols, colors, logos, fixtures, cartoons or images.”
The ordinance also restricts people to displaying a single flag, with exceptions for times around national holidays, like the Fourth of July, when people are allowed to display an unlimited number of them.
Flags are defined as “any fabric or bunting containing distinctive colors, patterns or symbols used as symbol of a government or institution.”
In December of 2017, with the new ordinance in effect, Bel-Nor cited Willson for violating the ordinance by displaying three signs, according to his complaint.
The court filing says he faced the possibility of a $1,000 fine and 90 days of jail time if convicted of violating the sign code. But court documents have since noted that Missouri state law prohibits people from being imprisoned for this sort of violation.
Willson’s lawsuit alleges that the sign ordinance restricts speech based on its content, and that it’s vague, over-broad and in violation of the First Amendment.
Monday’s ruling notes that part of the argument his lawyers have made is that the flag provisions impose different restrictions on signs and flags that effectively depend on content.
The district court said Willson didn’t have standing on this issue because there was no evidence the flag language affected him. But the appeals court said the lower court made an error here.
“Willson has standing to argue that Ordinance 983 is content-based,” Judge Duane Benton wrote for the appellate panel.
Based on definitions in the ordinance, Monday’s ruling points out, fabric with a sports team logo on it could be considered a sign, while the same material with an Army logo would be a “flag.”
“The content of a flag or sign determines whether it is a flag or sign,” the ruling says.
If a limit on speech is content-based, it is subject to tougher scrutiny and a government is required to show that it furthers a compelling government interest and is narrowly tailored to do so.
But the panel says that interests Bel-Nor cites related to traffic safety and aesthetics fall short on this front.
“Even considering a two-sided sign and one flag, a one-sign limit is too restrictive under First Amendment doctrine,” the ruling says. It adds: "Bel-Nor’s interests in traffic safety and aesthetic do not justify such a broad restriction of residents’ constitutionally-protected conduct."
The Bel-Nor case is similar to a legal challenge the ACLU helped to bring against local sign restrictions in Harrisonville, Missouri. That case ended with a settlement late last year that involved the city agreeing to regulate signs based on their total area.
Rothert acknowledges that local governments have legitimate reasons for imposing restrictions on signs. But referring to the Bel-Nor case, he said the city’s policy is like to “taking a sledgehammer to a fly.”
Going forward the city has a number of options. It could decide to defend its ordinance in court, to change it to be less restrictive, repeal it, or reach a settlement of some sort.
Willson still has the signs up, according to his lawyer. “He's never taken them down,” Rothert said. “He is just going to persist.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.