Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 30, 2015

Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Holds Sign Ordinance Did Not Violate First Amendment

The plaintiffs, a radio manufacturing and repair business and two of its managers, asserted that the City of Norfolk’s sign ordinance unconstitutionally exempted certain displays from regulation, effectuated a prior restraint on speech, and was selectively enforced in a discriminatory manner by zoning officials.

The court noted that in evaluating the content neutrality of a municipal sign ordinance, our “principal inquiry” is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of disagreement with the message it conveys. The plaintiffs characterized the City’s sign code exemptions as being too narrow, in that they exempt the flags and emblems only of governmental or religious organizations, and being too broad, in that they exempt all works of art but do not specifically define “art.” The plaintiffs further argued that because private or secular flags may have the same effect on aesthetics and traffic safety as exempted displays, and because certain works of art may have a more detrimental effect with regard to those purposes than displays subject to regulation, the exemptions lack a reasonable relationship to any legitimate interests and thus are content-based restrictions on speech. However, by exempting works of art that are noncommercial in character, the City has not favored certain artistic messages over others. Because of the City’s “clear content-neutral purpose” and the absence of a more specific inquiry in the sign code regarding the content of the regulated signs, the court concluded that the sign code is a content-neutral regulation of speech.

The code was found to be narrowly tailored because the sign code’s size and location restrictions demonstrate that the City has “carefully calculated the costs and benefits associated with the burden on speech. Furthermore, unlike an outright ban on speech, the sign code left open ample alternative channels of communication by generally permitting the display of signs “subject only to size and location restrictions”. Accordingly, because the City’s sign code satisfied the standards required of content-neutral licensing regulations, the court concluded that the district court did not err in rejecting the plaintiffs’ challenge to the sign code as an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

Central Radio Company, Inc. v City of Norfolk, Va, 2015 WL 151611 (4th Cir. CA 1/13/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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