Entrepreneurs wishing to advertise new products or services are often thwarted by local ordinances that censor their efforts to communicate certain messages to the public. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that such restrictions are unconstitutional, and struck down an unfair and confusing set of restrictions imposed on signs by the Town of Gilbert, Arizona. But many cities across the country continue to threaten small business owners with fines and even jail time for putting up a “For Lease” sign or a banner offering free meals to veterans.
The City of Chandler, Arizona, didn’t learn from the experience of neighboring Gilbert. In violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed, Chandler imposes different rules for signs based on their content and the speaker. Chandler’s sign code bans some signs altogether, requires permits for other signs, and allows other signs without any prior permission—all depending on what the signs say.
Under Chandler’s perplexing rules, it would be illegal for a day care business to place a sign advertising a discount to single parents right beside a sidewalk. But if the sign also contained the words “grand opening,” the sign would be legal. Different size, dimension and location requirements apply to “open house signs” than to “real estate signs” even when both signs advertise that a property is available for sale or lease.
Whether an advertiser will be left alone – or charged with a crime punishable by thousands of dollars in fines or jail time – depends on how a city official chooses to categorize the sign in question. And that decision is based on what the sign says – a content-based regulation, which the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional.
The Goldwater Institute has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Chandler Sign Code to vindicate the rights to free speech and to equal protection under the law.
Officials looking for guidance in revising their sign codes to respect constitutional rights and avoid costly litigation can read the Goldwater Institute’s report Heed Reed.