Changes may be coming to the city of Daphne’s sign regulations ahead of the August municipal election cycle, but not before the city’s legal team makes sure the new rules aren’t in violation of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In May, councilors discussed adopting an updated sign ordinance that would limit residents to two non-illuminated signs per lot or parcel in a residential zone, and one non-illuminated sign on private property in commercial, business and industrial zones for each candidate and each issue. The ordinance would also limit the size of political signs in business, commercial and industrial zones to no larger than 32 square feet and no higher than 8 feet.
Councilman Ron Scott cited the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, as the reason for pulling the ordinance from the council’s June 6 agenda.
The case centered on a 2005 municipal sign ordinance which imposed stricter limitations on signs advertising religious services than signs displaying “political” or “ideological” messages. A church in Gilbert sued the town, arguing its sign regulations violated the church’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The court ruled in the church’s favor.
In writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the town’s sign ordinance “imposed content-based restrictions that did not survive strict scrutiny because the ordinance was not narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.”
“We are looking into the ramifications of the ruling and what it means for us,” Scott said. “Our legal counsel asked us to consider pulling it from the agenda to make sure we are OK. As soon as our attorneys give us guidance, we will take it up again at a code enforcement committee meeting.”
Daphne City Attorney Jay Ross said the city must be sure the updated sign regulations are “content neutral” to avoid a similar legal entanglement.
“The court ruled that you have to pass content-neutral sign ordinances,” Ross said. “You can’t treat one type of signage different than another. All signs, whether political or nonpolitical, have to be treated the same.”
Ross said the updated ordinance has some inconsistencies which he fears may get the city into trouble. For instance, the city does not allow businesses to place signs in customers’ yards. Ross also said in the city’s updated ordinance, political signs could be different sizes than other permitted signs. He said the delay will allow the city to address the inconsistencies in its sign ordinance before making a final decision.
“This case created a lot of questions for me,” Ross said. “The council wanted to make changes to its sign ordinance, and I am concerned that some of the changes may have made things worse for them. My job is to lessen that chance.”