On The Front Lines
Victory: Virginia Officials Agree to Suspend Campaign Sign Restrictions That Discriminate Against Political Speech
PALMYRA, Va. — In a victory for the right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment, especially as it relates to political expression, county officials in one Virginia locality have agreed to temporarily suspend their enforcement of ordinances limiting the display of political signs to a 60-day period preceding an election.
Officials with Fluvanna County have agreed to not enforce its time limit on campaign signs while it reviews First Amendment concerns raised by The Rutherford Institute that the sign restrictions discriminate against political speech. In a June 26 letter, Institute attorneys pointed out that the County’s regulations on the display of political signs, which impose no similar time limitations on other signs without political messages, discriminate against political speech in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech.
“The First Amendment is very clear: Americans have the 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. “In a day and age when the freedom of speech is under attack across the board, it’s time to re-establish the idea that 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 should have the fullest and most urgent application to speech as it relates 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 June 26 letter to Fluvanna’s County Administrator, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute pointed 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 pointed 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 acknowledging the constitutional problems raised by Rutherford Institute attorneys, County officials agreed to suspend enforcement of the ordinance while its planning commission considers changes to the regulations.