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Aesthetics Can’t Limit Political Speech

Your neighbor may not enjoy looking at the campaign sign on your front lawn, but he has no right to call in the police to make you take it down. This is a matter of settled First Amendment law:

A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of our culture and our law, that principle has special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person’s ability to speak there.” City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 58, 114 S. Ct. 2038, 2047, 129 L. Ed. 2d 36 (1994)

Yet the Cheyenne City Council still toys with the notion of restricting your right to speak freely.

The Cheyenne Unified Development Code (UDC) included apparently unconstitutional regulations for temporary signs in residential areas when it was adopted in 2012. Those regulations apply to election and ideological signs. Under current UDC rules, a person may not erect a temporary sign on his or her residential property more than 10 days before such events as an election or referendum. More recently the City claims it applies a more permissive interpretation of “event” than the text of the law appears, but it has not revised the Code. And additionally, the Council has said that residential property owners may not post more than two such signs in most situations. This new limit on “non-commercial” signs also appears to be unconstitutional.

Cheyenne has encountered this problem before. The Laramie County District Court struck down a previous restrictive ordinance as unconstitutional on May 17, 1996. That illegal ordinance restricted displaying political signs to a period from 45 days before an event, to 10 days afterward. For some 16 years Cheyenne survived without a sign ordinance.  Then in 2012 the UDC ushered in a more restrictive ordinance than the one already determined unconstitutional!

 That 1996 court ruling, like many other similar rulings, explained in no uncertain terms that aesthetics or concern about visual clutter in neighborhoods can not justify laws that limit noncommercial or political speech in the form of signs.

The Cheyenne City Council needs to fix these problems with the UDC before the Court forces it to do so— for a second time, and at considerable expense.

At least four members of the city council still insist that the proposed ordinance scheduled for a final vote on Monday night, December 23 , does not protect neighborhoods enough from aesthetic harm caused by election or ideological signs. The courts have already stated that these concerns are not important enough to allow cities like Cheyenne to keep political sign regulations in place. Now, a committee of the City Council has proposed changes to the constitutional fix approved by the City Council on second reading. Those changes will once again allow the city to censor political speech by residents based entirely on the content of that speech by requiring people to remove signs supporting candidates or issues shortly after Election Day. The 2000 presidential election has already demonstrated that communicating political preferences can remain relevant more than 10 days following an election. Other parts of the world also provide excellent examples of how important it is for people to speak up regarding elections long after the polls officially close.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already decided a city’s ban on almost all residential signs (except business signs and temporary signs for elections and when a house is for sale or rent) violates the First Amendment. In the 1994 case City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the Supreme Court stated:

Individual residents themselves have strong incentives to keep their own property values up and to prevent ‘visual clutter’ in their own yards and neighborhoods – incentives markedly different from those of persons who erect signs on others’ land, in others’ neighborhoods, or on public property. Residents’ self-interest diminishes the danger of the ‘unlimited’ proliferation of residential signs that concerns the city.

The Cheyenne City Council possesses less authority to make decision to make on Monday night than some Council members believe. The Constitution and the Supreme Court have already decided whether people can post election or ideological signs on their own property when those people feel the sign will help convey the political message. The proposed ordinance that the council will vote on fixes the constitutional problems as written. However, proposed amendments to that ordinance that the Council will also consider unacceptably limit the core political speech that the First Amendment was written to protect. Therefore, the only real question is whether Cheyenne’s city council members are willing to follow the law and respect the First Amendment freedom of speech on private property without another court order. Now is the time for citizens to stand their ground and to remind the City Council that government “shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

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Saturday, 27 May 2017
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