116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s time for Cedar Rapids residents to take down the yard signs in front of their houses that advocate for the election of whichever mayoral candidate they supported in Tuesday’s runoff.
Throughout the competitive race, signs in support of Mayor-elect Tiffany O’Donnell, incumbent Brad Hart and challenger Amara Andrews sprang up in yards around the city, and sometimes in right of way spaces where they technically are barred.
But the city is treading carefully on enforcing its own ordinance regulating sign placement, wary of violating residents’ fundamental First Amendment rights protecting their freedom of speech.
Signs may be placed up to 60 days before a state, local or national election, including primary elections and caucuses, and must be removed immediately once the election ends, according to city policy. This is not intended to include signs that already were allowed on the lot.
To avoid infringing on free speech rights, the Cedar Rapids zoning policy states “the content of this additional signage is not subject to regulation by the city.” Government entities cannot make “content-based distinctions” in their policies, or regulations that discriminate on the basis of the content of what something communicates — for instance, advertising or political messages.
Instead, city Housing and Nuisance Manager Greg Buelow said Cedar Rapids officials look at a sign’s placement and size rather than the content, particularly for public safety purposes.
The city’s zoning ordinance states that signs are not approved or rejected for content, except those that have texts or graphics that:
- Are harmful to minors as defined by state or federal law;
- Are “obscene, fighting words, defamation, incitement to imminent lawless action, or true threats”;
- Present a clear and present danger, and may potentially be confused with traffic control signs
- Provide false information related to public safety (e.g., signs that use the words ”stop” or “caution” or similar words, phrases, symbols or characters)
“We would look to there being a clear legal precedent that this type of language is incitement to violence or threatening” to enforce code in case of any potential violation, city Zoning Administrator Seth Gunnerson said.
Buelow said there was only one complaint in October about signs. Code enforcement officers are working on eight active cases, he said, but those cases “pertain to commercial signs that need repair or the display of too many signs on a storefront, for example.”
What is allowed?
In the 60-day period before an election, Gunnerson said, residential properties are allowed 24 square-feet of signage. After the election ends, that allowance drops down to 6 square feet, which he said is typically two signs.
“We don't determine whether or not something's an election sign,” Gunnerson said. “Staff's not sorting the content based on, ‘This is election-related, this is something else.’”
Signs posted on private property must have the property owner’s permission and, again, must not be placed on public right of way. For residents with a sidewalk, that generally falls in the area between the curb and the sidewalk. For those without a sidewalk, it is approximately the same distance up to the curb.
“Public property can’t be used to advertise a particular business, or obviously we really don't want public properties,” maintained with taxpayer funds, “to be advertising council people or political positions,” Gunnerson said.
Buelow said the city’s enforcement system is complaint-based, though periodically code enforcement officers go around town and remove the signs, or police volunteer corps pick them up if there appears to be an accumulation of signs in the right of way.
In 2011, The Gazette reported that police volunteer corps responded to complaints about signs littering yards and interfering with vision at street intersections, and came away with 212 signs the found posted illegally.
Court rulings have upheld citizens’ First Amendment rights in cases involving municipalities’ enforcement of sign policies.
The Supreme Court offered guidance to municipalities on whether such restrictions are content-based in 2015, from the Reed v. Town of Gilbert case. The case stemmed from an Arizona town’s restrictions on posting certain kinds of signs, with this case revolving around promotion of a church service.
The court unanimously struck down Gilbert’s law, ruling that it treated signs with varying messages differently and that one would need to read the sign to determine how to treat it under the law. It requires that sign regulations be reasonable and content neutral.
Rita Bettis Austen, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said in a statement that while municipalities have considerable authority to regulate display of signs on public property, “banning, or overly restricting, political signs on private property is a violation of the First Amendment rights of private individuals.”
Robert Palmer, the Iowa League of Cities general counsel and director of government affairs, said the organization hears most often from members about yard sign issues related to profanity.
“It's not up to me to judge which words are good or bad, but they call and there's a sign, and honestly, it's a common story that it's across from a school or near a day care, something of that nature, and what can we do to address it?” Palmer said. “And the truth is very little.”
He said cities are advised to consult with their city attorney, but typically the best course of action is seeing if another community member who knows the individual may have success reaching out and asking if there is another word the could be used on the sign.
“I think the majority of people try to do the right thing, and when they are educated and know about this, then they follow the rules,” Buelow said. “ … In particular with local elections, these officials will be overseeing or be the elected body that makes policies for our city, and so there's a vested interest in making sure that we're following the ordinances and municipal codes that are in place of the city.”
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