Sign Ordinance Snags On Free Speech Issues

by | Mar 11, 2014

Crafting a new sign ordinance for the town has turned into tricky business, with the Planning Department and Planning Board still struggling with how to protect free speech while similarly protecting the town’s desire to have a say in such things as how long a sign can be posted and how big it can be.



The Town Council asked Planning Director Lisa Bourbonnais to come up with a new sign ordinance after the Rhode Island ACLU in September 2012 said East Greenwich’s sign ordinance violated the First Amendment by banning political signs in areas where commercial signs are allowed and by having tighter restrictions on the size of political signs than on commercial signs.

The town had not been enforcing the ordinance, but Town Council President Michael Isaacs agreed it should be rewritten to come in line with the U.S. Constitution on free speech issues.

The old ordinance read in part: “Political signs may be no greater than four square feet in area. Freestanding political signs may be no greater than four feet in height overall, and they may not be placed closer than five feet from any property line. Such signs are prohibited from public rights-of-way, municipal buildings and properties and may not be affixed to trees, traffic signs or utility poles.”

The revised ordinance would allow political signs in the downtown commercial zone as large as commercial signs (that is, up to 70 percent of the linear frontage associated with your business). In residential areas, all signs would be limited to 2 square feet.

The biggest challenge with the new ordinance, said Town Planner Lisa Bourbonnais Monday, comes with restricting the length of time a sign can be displayed.

In 2004, the ACLU told the town the part of the sign ordinance saying no political signs were allowed until 30 days before an election was unconstitutional; the town responded by taking that restriction out of the ordinance.

However, Bourbonnais said she thought time limitations could be used if all signs – commercial and noncommercial (including political) – had to follow the same limitations.

According to Brown, political signs (electoral or not) are protected free speech and as such are allowed to remain for as long as the property owner wants.

“There are numerous court decisions dealing with political signs on private property that say the durational limits are unconstitutional,” Brown said Monday.

During a meeting of the Planning Board last Wednesday evening, however, member Mike Donegan said the cases Brown cited referred to laws with very short time limits, 14 days in one case.

The Planning Board appeared unconvinced that no time limits would ever be allowed. But it stopped short of wanting to write an ordinance that would invite an ACLU lawsuit.

Another issue is the handling of what’s called “off-premises signs,” signs on commercial buildings that don’t relate to the business conducted in the building. It’s outlawed in the current ordinance, but that becomes problematic since it’s largely a political sign phenomenon – a business allowing the posting of a political sign on its premises.

It is not as if the town can’t have some say in the issue, Brown said. For instance, the town can (and currently does) outlaw signs on public property – all signs. Those soccer or lacrosse signup placards stuck in the lawn on school property, for instance – they are not allowed. The town doesn’t tend to cite people for such signs. Rather, it usually just removes them.

But if we want to be able to post such signs in our front yard – which is allowed under the “temporary signs” category – then we can’t complain when our neighbor puts up an “Impeach Joe Smith” sign in his front yard.

The question for the town remains, however: how long can either sign be allowed to stay?


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