Sign Code 101 – Make it Content Neutral

If you have not looked at your sign code in a long time, there is no time like the present. Last week the United States Supreme Court reminded us that content-based regulations of speech (like your sign code) rarely survive strict scrutiny. Reed v. Town of Colbert, Arizona, et al., No. 13-502 __ U.S. __ (2015). The Town of Colbert’s sign code was not that different than others I have read. It defined categories of temporary, political, and ideological signs on the basis of their message. In other words, how the sign was regulated depended entirely on the communicative content of the sign. For example, political signs were allowed to be displayed up to 60 days before a primary election and up to 15 days following a general election. As Justice Thomas explained, under Colbert’s code“[i]f a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s Two Treatise of Government, that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government.&rdquo For years, I have stressed the need to define signs simply, i.e. temporary or permanent, on-premise or off-premise. Then, regulate the sign’s building materials, size, lighting, moving parts, and portability. Take a quick look at your sign code. If you have to read a sign to determine how it’s regulated, it definitely is time for an update.