Signs of the Times: The Rules and Regulations of Political Sign Season
by Rudman Winchell Attorney John Hamer, Esq.
Autumn may be just around the corner, but the growing season for political signs is just beginning. Political signs are informative and colorful additions to the foliage season– the various shape, sizes, and creativity that go into them are remarkable. However, some of these same traits may be a bit distracting for drivers from time to time or lose their appeal after a month or so. The question is often asked, can anything be done about them? The answer is generally no, unless the sign is placed on your property.
City streets and town roads (right-of-ways) are traditional public fora– in other words, “they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public, and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” Hague v. Committee for Indus. Organization, 307 U.S. 496, 515-16 (1939) (opinion of Roberts, J.) As such, speech occurring in right-of-ways is afforded special protection. Except under very limited circumstances, regulations are limited to content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983). To be valid, time, place and manner restriction, the regulation must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. v. Village of Stratton, 536 U.S. 150, 175 (2002). Public safety and convenience and regulating traffic are examples of interest that have been found to be significant. Heffron v. International Soc. for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640, 650 (1981) and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc. v. Public Service Commission of New York, 447 U.S. 530, 535-36 (1980).
The State of Maine has enacted time, place, and manner regulations designed to regulate political signs. (The fact that the only way to conclude that a sign is political rather than commercial is to consider the sign’s content raises the question of whether the regulations are content-neutral. Nevertheless, I am not aware of such a challenge ever having been made to this statute, so the regulation stands.) Under state law, signs bearing political messages relating to an election, primary or referendum are allowed to be erected in the right-of-way without a permit beginning six weeks to the election, primary, or referendum to which they relate. They are supposed to be removed by the candidate or political committee not later than one week after the election. 23 M.R.S.A. § 1913-A(1)(H). Signs bearing political messages are allowed outside of a right-of-way (i.e.., on private property), without a time limit. 23 M.R.S.A. § 1913-A(2)(E). Many municipalities also regulate on-premise signs, but most simply defer to or incorporate the state regulations pertaining to signs in the right-of-way.
In the event an unwanted political sign appears on your property, you, as property owner, have the right to remove the sign. 23 M.R.S.A. § 1917-A(2)(B). However, it is necessary to make sure that the sign is actually on your property and not in the adjacent right-of-way, because taking, defacing, or disturbing a lawfully placed political sign is a civil violation that could result in a $250 fine upon conviction. 23 M.R.S.A. § 1917-A(1).
Enjoy the signs of the season!