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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Challenges Unconstitutional Sign Restrictions That Discriminate Against Political Speech

PALMYRA, Va. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging a Virginia sign regulation that discriminates against political speech as it relates to campaign signs. In a letter to Fluvanna County officials, Rutherford Institute attorneys point out that the County’s regulations on the display of political signs, which limit the display of political signs to a 60-day period preceding an election while imposing no similar time limitations on other signs without political messages, violate the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech.

“Americans have a clear First Amendment right to freedom of political expression, whether that ‘expression’ takes place at a podium, on a t-shirt, a billboard, a picket sign, or on a campaign sign,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Indeed, political speech is essential to and is the essence of self-government. It is for this reason that the protections afforded to expression under the law have the fullest and most urgent application to speech that relate to politics.”

Fluvanna County has a number of ordinances that restrict the erection and display of signs within the County. As a general rule, a person must obtain a permit from the County in order to erect a sign, but certain kinds of signs are exempted from the permit requirement. Certain “temporary signs” which advertise an event or seasonal activity, are exempt from the permit requirement. Fluvanna’s ordinances include “political signs” within the category of temporary signs, but also limit the time during which political signs may be displayed to 60 days before and 10 days after the election to which the sign refers.

Dr. Elizabeth Alcorn, the Democratic Party nominee for Virginia’s 58th House of Delegates seat, turned to The Rutherford Institute for help in challenging the County’s 60-day sign limit restriction for campaign signs. The 58th District encompasses several central Virginia counties, including the most populous areas of Fluvanna County.  While planning their efforts in Fluvanna County, Alcorn’s campaign became aware of the 60-day limit and the County’s history of enforcing the restriction against campaign signs, which would prevent her supporters from posting signs until September 6 (the general election will be held on November 5, 2019). 

In a letter to Fluvanna’s County Administrator, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute point out that the County’s 60-day sign restriction violates the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech because the limit discriminates against political speech because of its content. The letter also points out that while a sign expressing support for a political candidate may only be displayed for a 70-day period (60 days before the election, with the sign having to be removed within 10 days after the election), other signs with non-political messages, such as “for sale” signs or “no trespassing” signs, may be displayed permanently. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that this kind of content-based regulation of signs is subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.  In demanding assurances from Fluvanna County that it will not enforce the restriction against Alcorn’s campaign signs, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn that Fluvanna’s 60-day sign restriction is an overbroad regulation of property owners’ right to display political signs that would not survive strict legal scrutiny.

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