Sign Prohibitions and the First Amendment

J Philip Faranda August 24, 2010

J Philip Real Estate

The New York suburbs are often funny about real estate signs. One town won’t allow a sign with a company name, allowing only “For Sale By Broker” or “For Sale By Owner” on the panels. Another municipality prohibits anything bigger than 12″ x 12″. Some places ban signs altogether, while others have rules rendering them useless, such as one that will only allow them in a front window. On a set back home that does nothing. One local city is OK with “For Sale” signs but outlaws “Sold” signs. 

In every one of these municipalities, I have seen chintzy yard signs that remain up for weeks and sometimes months by home improvement companies, painters, fence installers, garage door technicians, and many other trades. I have never understood why they are permitted and my sign is not. Actually, I do understand, and it is not cool.

It amazes me that a municipality-the government- can abridge what I put on a sign or can restrict me from having a sign at all. It is absolutely contrary to the first amendment, and makes these towns more like patriarchal fiefdoms than governments that are out for the highest and best for the citizenry. Now, there may be a few who find real estate signs to be distasteful or clutter the view. But the constitution doesn’t exist for them to have a good view or have environs that conform to their particular taste. It exists to protect my freedom of expression and ensure that commerce can be promulgated. 

Big companies with large market share in these areas have no desire from what I can see to change the law. It enables them to keep status quo. If I busted my hump and a few of my signs sprang up it might shift the balance of power. They can’t have that. Homeowners probably like the law too, because yard signs can distract, or because their absence makes it appear that nobody wants to move from their idyllic ‘burb. Gag me. That doesn’t make it right. 

The right to self expression and to post my message without the state’s interference is not something that can be voted on or zoned out. It is an inalienable right. The “tyranny of the mob” does not grant or deny rights. Rights are rights. And you can’t bestow a right on a garage door guy and deny it to a real estate broker. I know of no sign restriction that ever held up in court. They exist because we are too busy earning a living to have our day in court. For now. 

Yes, some of the local towns are funny about signs. But I’m not laughing. 

Join The Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.