Court ruling still leaves sign rules unclear

REGULATING SIGNS HAS ALWAYS been a vexing problem for municipalities – and the city of Plymouth has been no different.

At conflict often times is the individual’s right to free expression and, often, to advertise balanced against the general public’s right to safety and freedom from clutter and annoyance.

Trying to find a balance between these at times conflicting aims has proven to be a real challenge on several occasions in the past.

That included battles over billboards within or near the city limits, temporary banner signs, event signs, contractor signs and much more.

The city, like many other municipalities, has developed a sign code over the years that seems to have been acceptable, if not always appreciated, by just about everyone.

But now, the city of Plymouth and many other communities are being forced to take a new look at their sign regulations in the light of a ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

What the court ruled – unanimously – is that localities can not regulate signs solely on the basis of their content. Regulations based on size, location, type of sign and so forth were left in place.

The result is that communities can limit the size, location and type of signs they allow, but they can not allow or prohibit signs solely based on their content or message.

For the city of Plymouth, it will mean just a few minor tweaks to the current ordinance, as City Attorney Crystal Fieber explained to the Plan Commission earlier this month in presenting a modified sign ordinance.

But while that may be the case now, there is no guarantee that things will remain that clear in the near future.

That’s because the Supreme Court’s ruling that triggered the changes is not all that clear, despite the surface unanimity.

That’s because the unanimous court actually split into three different camps on the issue.

Three justices wrote the final opinion, but another three felt that opinion went too far in prohibiting all content-based restrictions, while the other three justices agreed with the majority conclusion but disagreed with the legal reasoning behind the decision.

That’s all pretty clear, right? Of course not, and thus comes the conundrum for many local officials grappling with applying this ruling to local rules and regulations.

For instance, the particular issue in Reed v. Town of Gilbert was a directional sign for services held by a local church that town officials said violated their time limit for the posting of signs for one-time events.

While the court called this regulation based on content, Justice Samuel Alito in his concurrence said that municipalities would still be able to distinguish between on-premise and off-premise advertising and place time limits on signs advertising a one-time event – the very regulations in the town of Gilbert that the decision struck down.

No wonder local officials are scratching their heads about where they go now with sign rules – and no wonder that many expect further cases and rulings on the issues left unclear in the wake of Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

The only thing that really seems to be clear is that the signs point to continued confusion over sign regulations.

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