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First Amendment Protection Trumps Lawn Sign Ordinance

By Frank Parlato

A complaint was made in the Town of Niagara.

Niagara County legislative candidate Giulio Colangelo put up signs in the town that were larger than the town ordinance allows for lawn signs.

Town of Niagara allows lawn signs to be no larger than 4.7 square feet.

Colangelo's signs were 5.03 square feet.

That is they were 0.3 of a square foot larger than the ordinance allows.

All told 7.5 by 6 inches, about the size of a DVD spread over the whole surface of the sign, not noticeable to the naked eye.

But somebody made the complaint and Colangelo did what any prudent, good natured candidate might do.

He didn't buy new, smaller signs.

"New signs are expensive, I can’t afford it," he said.

He didn't remove the signs either.

He simply went out with a pair of scissors and a box cutter and trimmed an inch off the edges of the sign.

He did it to make them "legal."

Colangelo's 5th District straddles both the Town of Niagara and Niagara Falls.

In Niagara Falls he did not have to do any trimming.

The ordinance there is six square feet (2 by 3).

"When I found this out, I just complied and met the ordinance. My main concerns are the issues confronting the people of this county, as opposed to signs," Colangelo said.

"Issues like creating jobs, controlling taxes, and improving services for Niagara County residents, the impact of the mall expansion in the Town of Niagara."

In election season, lawn signs stand for free speech, protected by the First Amendment. A lawn sign or a handbill or a speech delivered from a soapbox that urges a vote for a candidate is at the heart of liberty.

And while many municipalities have ordinances that vary widely, a town can't really regulate lawn signs unless there is a "substantial" state interest. For instance if a lawn sign was 50 feet tall and blocked a stop sign.

In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that a town cannot suppress speech by regulating when a lawn sign can be displayed or how large a lawn sign can be.

"Signs that react to a local happening or express a view on a controversial issue both reflect and animate change in the life of a community," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens (City of Ladue v Gilleo). "Residential signs have long been an important and distinct medium of expression ... an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication," Stevens wrote. "Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute."

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided numerous cases regarding the First Amendment. It has been said that the First Amendment has "its fullest and most urgent application" to speech during political campaigns, and "communication by signs and posters is virtually pure speech."

Colangelo's opponent, the incumbent Jason Zona, said he had heard about Colangelo's signs being too large.

'I'm certainly not going to waste my time on this," Zona said. "I could care less about the size of his signs. I don’t believe that the government should be able to tell us what kind of lawn sign we can put on our lawns. This complaint did not come from me," Zona added.

When told his opponent was cutting off an inch off his signs, Zona said, "While he is my opponent, I hear he is good guy. He shouldn't have to be bothered trimming them an inch. I would be the first to fight it, if they came after me on a lawn sign. I would probably file a lawsuit challenging the foolish law. After all, people pay a lot of money for their property and for government to say that you can’t put up something on your own lawn is outrageous."



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

SEP 03, 2013