Federal Courts Continue to Grapple with Sign Restriction Cases

Route Fifty article (2019-05-20) reported that the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked the City of Bel-Nor, Missouri from enforcing a local sign law that prohibits a resident from displaying more than one sign at a time on their property. The article noted that the holding is a follow-up on a 2015 US Supreme Court Case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which ruled that setting specific guidelines for different types of signs was unconstitutional.

After the Reed decision, many Maryland counties and municipalities revised their sign ordinances. While not binding precedent on Maryland, the 8th Circuit decision nonetheless provides some guidance that could be used by the 4th Circuit (which includes Maryland) should a similar case arise here.

The City of Bel-Nor is located on the outskirts of St. Louis and has about 1,500 residents. The City’s sign ordinance prohibited homeowners from displaying more than one sign on their property and included specific restrictions on displaying flags except during specified holidays. Lawrence Willson, a resident who had been previously cited by the City for having multiple signs, challenged the ordinance. Willson had three signs, each about 18 by 24 inches, with political messaging in his yard.

From the article:

“In our view, a one-sign restriction is too restrictive of speech,” [American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Legal Director Tony] 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. …

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.

The article stated that a federal district court denied Willson’s motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcing the ordinance but a three-judge panel for the 8th Circuit reversed that decision. The 8th Circuit determined Willson would likely succeed on a First Amendment challenge and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

Useful Links

Willson v. City of Bel-Nor (8th Circuit Court of Appeals, May 20, 2019)

Reed v. Town of Gilbert (US Supreme Court, June 18, 2015)