ST. LOUIS (CN) – An attorney for a St. Louis County homeowner argued before an Eighth Circuit panel Tuesday that his municipality’s limit on the number of signs residents can have on their property hinders his free speech.
Lawrence Willson was ticketed by the city of Bel-Nor in June 2017 for having three political signs in his yard. He claims he was threatened with 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for violating the applicable ordinance, which limits each property to just one sign.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Willson’s behalf, claiming the law was overly broad and infringed on his right to free speech. The group appealed to the Eighth Circuit after a federal judge in the Eastern District of Missouri ruled against Willson’s request for a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law, finding his case was unlikely to succeed on merits.
ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert, representing Willson before the three-judge panel Tuesday, argued that the ruling was a mistake. He said a sign in front of a home was different than one on the side of the road.
“A sign in front of a home or yard has a special message,” Rothert told the judges. “It says that person living there believes in it.”
Rothert outlined the government’s interests in regulating signs, including preserving an area’s aesthetics and public safety, which was the main point of contention with Bel-Nor.
“St. Louis County has 89 other municipalities, none of which have a one-sign limit,” Rothert said during the hearing. He said that shows there is no correlation between sign limits and safety.
He also argued that the ordinance was not narrowly tailored, using the example of a husband and wife who supported opposing political candidates. Under Bel-Nor’s law, Rothert argued, only one person in a household could express themselves in that scenario.
Attorney Jeffrey Brinker represented Bel-Nor, a small municipality in north St. Louis County that sits on just 403 acres and has a population of about 1,400.
Brinker argued that Bel-Nor’s unique size coupled with its population and three schools in a condensed area made public safety a main concern. He said there is an elementary school, a private high school with no bus system, and the University of Missouri – St. Louis, which is mainly a commuter campus, within the city limits.
“There are cars parking on both sides of the streets … with the number of student drivers there is a concern to reduce the numbers of distractions in the form of signs in yards,” Brinker told the court.
The three-judge panel questioned Brinker on the effectiveness of the one-sign limit given the large amount of political positions elected by citizens within local, state and federal government.
“The sign can be rotated,” Brinker explained to the panel. “On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for example, the sign could be for a certain candidate in one district and on the other days it can be for candidates in other districts as well.”
Brinker added that social media has given people more power to express themselves politically than ever before. He said people can express themselves on Facebook, in a blog or on Twitter, all in the same time it takes to put up a yard sign.
In his rebuttal, Rothert argued there were other ways Bel-Nor could improve safety without infringing on his client’s free speech. He claimed the city instead could eliminate parking on both sides of the street or place limits on sign sizes.
“Not only have no cases been upheld on one-sign ordinances, there have been no cases upheld in two-sign ordinances, three-sign ordinances or four-sign ordinances,” Rothert argued.
U.S. Circuit Judges Duane Benton, Michael J. Melloy and Jane Kelly sat on Tuesday’s panel. It is unclear when they will issue a decision.
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