Sign Codes

IJ Fights Sign Codes that Infringe on the First Amendment

In terms of getting a person’s message out, signs are hard to beat. Signs are cheap, direct and effective. This is why they are so often used by individuals and grassroots organizations to communicate with the public.

In recent years, though, local governments have enacted sign codes that force citizens to ask for permission to speak and that impose different restrictions on the size and placement of signs based on what those signs say. When the government can regulate signs in this way, it can censor speech that it does not like—including speech that criticizes the government.

Giving government bureaucrats the power to decide what speech is acceptable turns the First Amendment on its head. The Institute for Justice is determined to protect the free-speech rights of all Americans by rolling back these unconstitutional attempts to stifle free expression.

  • IJ has filed nine cases challenging government restrictions on signs. We have won five of those cases, including three major federal appellate court victories, and one case is still pending.
  • Our sign code cases have been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Forbes.com and in columns by George Will.
  • In 2015, our amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court helped lay the groundwork for one of its most important free speech decisions in years,  Reed v. Town of Gilbert. That ruling returned the First Amendment to its roots and will protect speakers of all stripes across the nation. And in light of Reed, the High Court overturned a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which allowed Norfolk, Va., to suppress a banner protesting the government’s illegal attempt to seize private property by eminent domain.

Under the First Amendment, the government cannot play the role of critic and censor messages that it deems disagreeable.  Through IJ’s litigation, we are working for a rule of law that does not allow local officials to discriminate between speakers based on what they want to say and that requires the government to justify its speech restrictions with actual evidence rather than empty assertions.

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