Sign of the Times: When, Where and How Political Signs Can Be Restricted

political signs

By Scott A. Leadingham

The First Amendment protects speech from government interference (with some exceptions like defamation and true threats).

But can political signs be regulated? Or are they like most other forms of speech that have broad protections against government censorship?

What are political signs?

It’s worth clarifying exactly what is a “political sign.” Simply put, anything can be a political sign if a person intends it to be or interprets the message as political.

Generally, that could mean signs that advance a message or cause like:

1. Support for or opposition to a candidate running for office. (Example: “Jane Doe for Senate.”)

2. Advocating for or against an issue of public interest on a ballot, such as a school levy or a ballot measure. (Example: “Vote NO on Prop 1.”)

3. A general statement or symbol that has a message that could be seen as political or generally advancing a policy idea. (Example: “No War!”)

How are political signs protected by the First Amendment?

There is no direct mention of political signs in the First Amendment or anywhere in the Constitution. But such signs are protected as speech, just like books, songs, movies and clothing.

This means people are generally free to display political signs in their yards, affix them to their cars as a bumper sticker or window decal, carry them while participating in a protest, attach them to their backpacks, or otherwise express their opinions with a sign.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said displaying signs is a fundamental part of showing support for a candidate or issue, and this speech is “core political speech.” It’s given the highest form of protection by the First Amendment. That means any laws regulating what people say (and have on signs) regarding “core political speech” must meet a very high standard (called “strict scrutiny”) to not violate the First Amendment.

This means that political signs have a high level of First Amendment protection, even signs that contain curse words or are otherwise offensive to some people. For example, people may not like a sign that says “(expletive) Joe Biden,” but it is most likely perfectly legal and protected free speech. A New Jersey woman tested that very issue in 2021 with multiple signs and flags bearing those and similar anti-Biden, pro-Trump messages. City officials in Roselle Park ticketed Andrea Dick based on the messages, saying the signs were obscene. She was convicted in municipal court and told to remove the signs. But a state court overturned the conviction, saying the curse words did not meet the standard of obscenity under the First Amendment. The signs stayed up.

There are some restrictions on political signs

Just as the government may censor or punish speech under the First Amendment, there can be limits on where and how political signs are displayed. If the limits apply to all signs – political or not – they are considered “content neutral” and require the government to show a significant interest in regulating them (like the need to ensure public safety or aesthetics). They must be written to serve that interest, and they must still allow the message to be communicated. Restrictions directed only at political signs are “content based,” and the speech can only be limited if the government meets the higher burden of demonstrating a “compelling” interest (usually protecting voters from harassment or interfering with the voting process).

On private property: Even on your own private property, there are limits to how signs are displayed. For example, you likely can’t build a 100-foot-tall billboard — political or otherwise — in your front yard in the middle of the city. The city could prevent you from doing that for safety or other reasons (like interfering with power lines or blocking firefighter access), as long the message on the sign isn’t being targeted.

In homeowners’ associations: Even if it’s your own house, the rules for displaying political signs in your yard if you live in an HOA may be different than in other communities. That’s because these are technically private corporations (often nonprofits) governed by a board of directors that can set rules for signs. However, an HOA’s ability to restrict signs often depends on state law. Some states do not allow HOAs to fully ban political signs in yards but may allow HOAs to restrict them based on size, the number of signs or when they are displayed. Other states allow HOAs to prohibit all political signs. If you live in an HOA, it’s best to check with the board, the HOA’s governing documents, and find any relevant state law that addresses political signs in yards.

On roads and rights of way: Most states and cities restrict any signs other than official traffic information signs from state highways and the adjacent government-controlled area (a “right of way”). This is because additional signs of any type, regardless of their message, may be a safety hazard or distract or confuse drivers. Billboards, which are often owned by private companies that allow paid political advertising on them, are included in this. States may have different regulations for whether billboards are allowed in rights of way, and they could still set rules for size and safety. Some states also place size and safety restrictions on billboards even if they’re on private land next to highways. For example, in Washington state, only official state highway signs are allowed along the public state highways on rights of way. The state has guidelines for candidates about how their political signs can be displayed on private property adjacent to highways. These state regulations apply to all types of signs and billboards, including business advertising, not just ones with political messages.

Hawaii has a strong tradition of political sign waving for candidates and issues, helped by state law that tightly regulates billboard placement and signs attached to utility poles. State law previously said political signs in public places weren’t allowed more than 45 days before an election, but the law was changed after the state’s attorney general said it was unconstitutional.

On parking strips and sidewalks: Parking strips are the area between the street and sidewalk that may be covered by grass. In most cities they are considered part of a public right-of-way yet are ultimately the responsibility of the adjacent home or property owner. If you have a parking strip outside your home between the sidewalk and the street, it’s most likely your call whether to allow other people to put political signs there. (It’s also very likely your responsibility to maintain the grass.) To be sure, check with your city’s code enforcement office.

Sidewalks are public rights of way, and cities can prevent them from being cluttered with political signs and other forms of messages, such as business sandwich boards.

At polling sites: Electioneering is a broad term to describe many forms of political advocacy and campaigning, like holding political signs, handing out materials, wearing candidate-specific clothing, asking people to sign petitions, or trying to persuade someone to vote a certain way. All states and the District of Columbia regulate electioneering at voting sites, though not all the same way. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of Dec. 31, 2023:

  • 21 states prohibit campaign apparel, buttons, stickers and placards.
  • 38 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit campaign materials, signs, banners and literature.
  • 28 states prohibit influencing voters, soliciting votes and political persuasion.
  • 17 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit circulating petitions and soliciting signatures.

Many of these restrictions on placing signs, campaigning or handing out candidate literature at voting sites are based on the distance from the polling site entrance, generally about 50 feet to 200 feet. Vermont’s law does not specify a distance but gives discretion to the person running the polling site to “control the placement of signs on the property of the polling place in a fair manner.”

This resource shows all the electioneering regulations for all states and Washington, D.C.

In schools: Public schools have more ability to restrict student speech than other parts of government do for the general population. Students do have some First Amendment and free speech protections. However, a public school may be able to confiscate a student’s political sign (or other forms of speech and expression) if the school can show the sign has or will significantly disrupt the learning environment.

Court cases dealing with political signs

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on a case about political signs related to the First Amendment. But some court cases have clarified the limits on sign placement.

On limits near polling places (1992)

The limits on signs and electioneering near polling sites came after a Supreme Court ruling in a case in Tennessee (Burson v. Freeman). The state had a law that electioneering – including holding political signs – had to be kept 100 feet away from polling sites. A political campaign challenged that law as violating free speech. The court ruled the law did not violate the First Amendment. They said there is “a compelling state interest” for the government to make sure people can vote “freely and effectively” without fear of intimidation. The regulation of 100 feet was reasonable since it did not completely block out political messages but left a comfortable distance for voters.

Signs can’t be limited because of their content (2015)

Political signs are a form of speech, but so are all other signs, including business advertising and a church promoting worship services. A pastor in Gilbert, Arizona, was doing just that – promoting worship services, which rotated to different locations because the church didn’t have its own building. The town found the signs violated their municipal code and removed them. Pastor Clyde Reed sued, saying the town’s code targeted the content of the signs, violating the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church (Reed et al. v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona et al.). In the 9-0 opinion, the court said the town did not have a compelling interest in regulating the church’s directional signs differently than all other signs. What it means for cities and states across the country is that all signs, including political ones, are broadly protected speech and cannot be treated differently based on their message.

Testing the limits of “content neutral” sign regulation (2022)

Government can regulate speech based on what is being said (the “content”) but such a law must pass a high bar known as “strict scrutiny.” Austin, Texas, had a sign ordinance that regulated outdoor billboards differently depending on whether the business or entity being advertised had a connection to the physical space where the sign was located, known as on-premises and off-premises signs. An advertising company sued the city, claiming the law targeted the messages of signs based on their content, which would not pass the “strict scrutiny” test. In other words, the company claimed the First Amendment required the city be “content-neutral” in its sign regulations. In City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising, the court ruled that the city’s law did not violate the First Amendment, and the regulation was not subject to strict scrutiny but to a lower, intermediate standard because the city was trying to regulate where the signs were placed, not what was on the signs.

There can be limits on how long signs stay up (2017)

Many cities impose limits on how long event signs can stay up on public property, including posters on utility poles and light posts. Some states require political signs specific to an election to be removed from public property within a certain time. A Washington, D.C., regulation about event signs was at the heart of one federal court case (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition v. District of Columbia). The city required signs to be removed 30 days after the event. An advocacy group sued, saying the District’s policy violated their right to free speech. A federal appeals court said the time-limit regulation for removing event-specific signs was reasonable and allowed since it wasn’t based on the content of the signs itself but rather about events that have passed. Also, cities have an interest in maintaining public property for aesthetics, cleanliness and safety. To date, the Supreme Court has not heard the case.

Political signs and the First Amendment

Displaying political signs like supporting a candidate, advocating for a ballot measure, or opposing a policy you don’t like is speech protected by the First Amendment. But like all freedoms, there are some limits on what you say and do that allow the government to punish you or otherwise restrict your speech.

The important message to remember is political signs are largely protected by the First Amendment and are part of “core political speech,” given the highest level of free speech protections. You can express your political opinion on signs, and campaigns can enlist volunteers to place signs in their yards or on public property, with some narrow limits.

However, whether speech is printed on a sign or shouted from your roof, the First Amendment doesn’t require other people to agree with or even listen to your message. And when election day comes, you may be prevented from displaying your T-shirt or sign at a polling site as people exercise their own constitutional right to vote without being influenced or intimidated.

Scott A. Leadingham is a Freedom Forum staff writer. Email

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