Freedom of speech

Time and placement of signs protected by Constitution

OBSERVER photo by Jimmy McCarthy Political signs have popped up across the village of Fredonia, including this one regarding an item on the Nov. 7 ballot that pertains to a constitutional convention.

Disputes have erupted over political signs and specifically when people can place them on their front lawns.

And while local laws aim to restrict when signs for candidates can be out, the Constitution would likely prevail if the ordinance was challenged in court.

According to a legal memorandum by the New York Department of State, regulations on when signs can be placed are likely to be struck down by the courts since it’s guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Local laws that regulate signs must be content neutral, meaning it must apply to all signs no matter the message.

“The main flaw in a local law or ordinance that applies specifically to election signs is that it imposes restrictions based on content or message,” the memorandum states.

Last year, the issue over political signs resonated in the city of Dunkirk. A section of city code read that signs for a political party or candidate could be erected up to three weeks prior to the election.

City officials addressed the issue in August 2016 when they approved to remove that section of city code.

Now, the village of Fredonia is facing a similar issue with a local law also detailing the placement of political signs three weeks before the election. Officials said during a Monday meeting that a new proposal is in the works to allow for equality among all signs, and no duration will be depicted in the proposal, according to Fredonia Code Enforcement Officer Charles LaBarbera.

Issues over political signs go back many years. Notably, in 1995, a federal appeals court decided that provisions of a municipal sign code in a town in Missouri was content based and unconstitutional. The court said the section of code was found to be “constitutionally suspect” due to the fact other commercial speech received more protection than noncommerical political speech.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court was faced with a case involving a citation filed against a church for having a sign displayed too long. The church sued for a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. The court’s ruling ultimately knocked down laws that restricted time and appearance on different classifications of signs.

Still, local laws on political signs exist in local municipalities. Brian Abram, county elections commissioner, said anyone running for office or people who are putting up signs for a candidate can contact their local code enforcement officer to see if there is an ordinance on when they can be placed.