Last week the Supreme Court issued a ruling in its first sign code case in more than 20 years. While the broad impact is still being determined (and likely will for years to come) it could leave communities re-evaluating their sign codes to make sure they are compliant.
A recap of the case
Reed v. Town of Gilbert (Ariz.) stemmed from a church’s use of temporary directional signs. Since the services were held in different venues each week, these signs let worshipers know the location of the meeting. The town’s sign code limited how long they could be displayed and their size. Other types of temporary signs—including political and ideological—could be larger and displayed longer.
The court unanimously found that placing limits on temporary directional signs that were more stringent than these other types of temporary signs was a content-based regulation of speech—a violation of the First Amendment. While the court’s ruling was unanimous, some justices differed with the majority’s written opinion and offered their own. In general, the concern among the concurring judges was that the majority opinion was so broad that it could open up every type of sign code to legal challenges.
Justice Samuel Alito, who authored one of the concurring opinions, explicitly listed several kinds of sign code provisions that are not content-based, including regulating sign size, sign illumination, EMCs and other regulations that the sign industry deals with on an everyday basis. Justice Alito also included “rules distinguishing between on-premise and off-premise signs,” which is of particular interest to our industry.
The Reed decision did contain some interesting tidbits that may be applicable to the sign industry in general, especially when it comes to regulatory and policy issues. The Court said that “the presence of certain signs may be essential, both for vehicles and pedestrians, to guide traffic or to identify hazards and ensure safety.” It sounds like Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote these words, understands the concept of signage deficiency! Justice Elena Kagan also, in a roundabout way in her concurring opinion, referenced the value of having signs being big enough to be effectively seen so that travelers can get to their destinations.
What it means
Issues with temporary sign codes have been growing in recent years. So much so that the Signage Foundation Inc. recently provided a guide—“Best Practices in Regulating Temporary Signs”—to help communities better understand these kinds of signs. The Supreme Court ruling could create many discussions at the community level about whether a specific sign code is in line with the ruling.
Rather than making sign codes more permissible, the opposite could occur. As an example, the city could choose to allow the directional signs to be as large as other types of temporary signs and to stay up the same length of time. Or it could restrict other types of signs to the same size and times directional signs are allowed. (The Gilbert case becomes more complex because the size and time limits on political signs are mandated by Arizona state law, not at the municipal level.)
Also unknown is whether other types of signs might attempt to use the Supreme Court ruling to challenge sign codes. Some communities allow schools and government entities to display EMCs, but ban businesses from doing the same. Could these circumstances create new legal challenges?
What ISA is doing
ISA has built relationships with city leaders and planners for a number of years. We offer resources to sign companies and communities to help navigate the complex world of sign codes. Two model sign codes are available: A Framework for On-Premise Sign Regulations and An Evidence Based Model Sign Code. ISA's EMC Night-time Brightness Recommendations have been adopted in whole or in part by more than 150 communities. We’ve trained more than 1,500 planners on sign code issues through our Planning for Sign Code Success™ events.
The Supreme Court ruling in Reed v. Gilbert will only intensify our efforts to positively influence sign codes throughout the United States. We will continue working with local officials to help guide them using our expertise and perspective. We’ll use SFI’s new temporary sign publication and other research as we continue to provide education for planners and local officials.
How you can help
ISA’s member companies are spread throughout the United States. While ISA has a number of ways to reach local leaders, you often hear about sign codes in development first. You may already be aware of sign codes that could be an issue in light of the Supreme Court ruling. And your community leaders may seek out your expertise as they discuss new sign codes.
We are here to assist you and your community. While the complete fallout of Reed v. Town of Gilbert may not be clear, we do have strategies to help communities create better sign codes based on the sign industry’s expertise, end user participation, research involving signs, and the latest in legal developments.
Please contact David Hickey ([email protected]) as you hear of sign code issues. You also may use or refer your local officials to the ISA web page filled with free resources for planners and local government officials to help communities create reasonable sign codes.