In a case that we reported on around this time last year, late last month, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district court’s ruling denying a motion for preliminary injunction against Bel-Nor, Missouri’s “one sign” rule. The Eighth Circuit’s ruling means that the city will be temporary enjoined from enforcing the law.
The facts of the case are discussed in our earlier post.
The court of appeals had no problem finding that the city’s sign regulation violated the First Amendment. The law allows just one freestanding yard sign, as well as one flag. The definition of “flag” in the city’s code indicates that the object must be a “symbol of a government or institution,” thus drawing a distinction based on the message a speaker conveys. Applying the Supreme Court’s holding in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the court found the regulation was content based. The court then found that the code was not narrowly tailored so as to pass muster under strict scrutiny.
The court also addressed the plaintiff’s overbreadth challenge to the “one sign” rule, finding the regulation to be unconstitutionally overbroad. As the court observed, the city’s interests in traffic safety and aesthetics do not justify a prohibition on the posting of more than one sign on a residential lot. The prohibition in the city’s code would, for example, prohibit a resident from simultaneously displaying Christmas lights, a security sign, and an election sign. The court found that the ordinance left no ample alternative channels, given the highly proscriptive nature of the regulation.
The court of appeals’ ruling in this case comes as no surprise. The district court overlooked some very serious constitutional defects in the city’s sign regulation. Local governments should continue to be wary of highly restrictive sign regulations that limit the number of signs a resident can post and that regulate on the basis of content.