You may have heard recently about a lawsuit brought by Cheyenne resident Ron Williams against the city for limiting the number of political signs he can put on his lawn and setting a timeframe within which he can display those signs. You might also think “what’s the big deal?” Indeed, I’ve heard from a few fellow residents that political signs aren’t important enough to sue over, that neighborhood aesthetics are more important than political signs, and that there are other ways for Ron to speak out. As one of Williams’s attorneys in the case, allow me to answer these criticisms.
First and foremost, free speech is one of our most important and unique American freedoms. Ron is only being censored in the length of time he can displays signs and the number of signs he can display, but he is nevertheless being censored. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The Supreme Court has held again and again that this amendment means what it says, and that government must not censor speech, limit speech, or even bump it the wrong way, especially when it involves a citizen speaking out on his own private property. There are certainly instances when government may implement policies that in effect limit speech, but these must be for compelling reasons and accomplished by the narrowest means possible.
This brings us to the second point, that every interest identified in the Cheyenne Unified Development Code is far from compelling. The UDC’s goals include enhancing “visual quality,” “economic viability” and “property values” among other things, and while these are certainly good goals they do not justify abridging speech. In addition to visual quality being an entirely subjective determination that lets government play art critic, yard signs are at the bottom of any serious list of things hurting economic viability and property values in Cheyenne. To be sure, think about some of the other things the First Amendment protects, like adult entertainment, flag burning and vulgarity. If property values were really a strong enough interest to restrict signs saying “Vote for John Doe,” do you think the First Amendment would really protect those other forms of speech? Probably not.
Finally, even if the interests protected by the UDC were compelling, they would have to be narrowly tailored. That means if there is another way for the government to achieve public interests while doing less harm to speech, it must take that route. So, it is not Ron’s (or any citizen’s) job to find a different way to speak out; rather, it is the government’s job to provide as much room for speech as possible. This is why my fellow attorneys Boyd Wiggam and Tim Kingston worked with City Council members to craft an amendment to the UDC that would not limit sign timing and quantity, and supported setback provisions and overall square footage limits to address traffic safety without limiting speech. We only brought Williams’s suit after this amendment failed.
With all of this in mind, it’s sad to suspect that much of the criticism against this lawsuit and Ron’s speech claims are hyperbole. Certain City Council members—and, indeed, plenty of their constituents—simply don’t want their neighbors speaking out too much or cluttering up the neighborhood. This reinforces the age-old axiom that the First Amendment is not there to protect the speech you like, but the speech you don’t like. To you who support censorship: welcome to America, that’s not how we roll.
I’m proud to represent Ron in this case, and hope we add another judicial opinion to the thousands that reinforce free speech as a serious principle, and not a problem to be solved.