Recent Supreme Court Decisions and Street Graphics Law

Street Graphics and the Law, now in its fourth edition, began 45 years ago when planner Bill Ewald decided that sign ordinances for on-premise business needed a new start. He developed a new concept and Street Graphics Model Ordinance that presented innovative ideas.

Ground sign height and size would depend on the speed and width of adjacent streets, an idea confirmed with United States Sign Council studies and now included in our report and approved by court decision. Wall signs would not have a rigid fixed location, but businesses could decide how to display them within a signable wall area.

Communities could designate Areas of Special Character, such as downtown areas, where they could adopt customized sign regulations to fit the aesthetic environment. In 1985, a federal district court held the entire street graphics ordinance constitutional.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) published the first edition, then called Street Graphics, distributed it nationwide, and made a 1971 movie about it seen by a million people. The first edition won a HUD award, and many communities adopted all or a part of the model ordinance in their sign regulations.

Then changes came. When HUD published the first edition, the free speech clause of the U.S. Constitution did not apply to commercial speech, so sign ordinances regulating commercial speech, like the Model Street Graphics Ordinance, did not have to comply with free speech law.

In 1976, that situation changed when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the free speech clause of the U.S. Constitution also applied to commercial speech.

Street Graphics and the Law then expanded its review of free speech principles, and the latest edition includes discussion of the important new Supreme Court case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which considered free speech law as it applies to sign regulation. This case complicates sign regulation, making many sign ordinances questionable, as explained further in the February 2016 Planning article, "Sign of the Times."

The Street Graphics Model Ordinance stands up pretty well after the Reed case. That case adopted strict rules to decide when a sign ordinance regulates sign content. An ordinance is usually unconstitutional if it regulates content even though it allows, rather than prohibits, certain kinds of speech, such as an ordinance authorizing a sign advertising real estate.

The Street Graphics Model Ordinance in the new edition of Street Graphics and the Law includes modifications that comply with the Reed decision, but the model ordinance in earlier editions avoided most problems that this case tried to correct.

Street Graphics and the Law is the dominant guide for sign ordinances that can communicate effectively in the environment while preserving aesthetic quality. Are you up to speed?

About the Author

Daniel R. Mandelker is the Stamper Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis where he teaches land-use and state and local government law.

Top image: A street lined with shop signs. Photo by Flickr user Missouri Division of Tourism (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

August 22, 2016

By Daniel Mandelker