(CN) - A North Carolina homeowner deserved to be fined because the sign he posted on his house, "Screwed by the Town of Cary," distracted traffic, the 4th Circuit ruled.
William Bowden hired a painter to paint "Screwed by the Town of Cary" in big fluorescent orange letters on the front of his house in 2009 after a road-widening project sent runoff onto his property, damaging his house.
The town ordered Bowden to take down the sign or face fines under the Cary Sign Ordinance, which prohibits signs that use fluorescent paint or exceed 2 feet in area. Under the ordinance, Bowden faced a $100 fine for day one, $250 for day two, and $500 a day thereafter.
Bowden sued Cary for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming that his message was part of his "core political speech that is directed at the town itself." He said the town ignored his complaints until he put up the sign and had "no intention of taking down the sign as long as the underlying dispute remained unresolved."
A federal judge found for Bowden and invalidated the sign ordinance, but the Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court reversed last week.
Bowden died while the appeal was pending, but the court substituted the administratrix of his estate, Dawn Brown, as plaintiff.
"It is beyond dispute that the town's stated interests in promoting aesthetics and traffic safety are substantial," Judge Albert Diaz wrote for a three-judge panel.
"We reject Bowden's contention that 'in this case, there was no evidence of any specific traffic problems,'" Diaz added. "To the contrary, the record shows that the bright fluorescent lettering sprayed across Bowden's home distracted both a Cary police officer and a passing motorist, who 'beeped his horn' to get the officer's attention."
Cary's sign law was content neutral and served a substantial government interest, according to the ruling.
"The content neutrality doctrine of the First Amendment does not impose an all-or-nothing ultimatum upon municipalities that confront these problems," Diaz wrote. "What it requires is that any content distinction a government makes must have a reasonable relation to a content neutral purpose. What it forbids are content distinctions that jeopardize our most venerated First Amendment principles by regulating public opinion under the guise of public welfare.
"We acknowledge that the town's sign ordinance, and in particular its application to Bowden, has aggravated some Cary residents who believe it excessively restrictive," he added. "But their recourse here lies with the ballot, not the Constitution. Because the sign ordinance has distinguished content for a constitutionally permissible purpose, we hold that it does not violate the First Amendment."