High Court OKs Homeowner’s Right to Display Protest Signs

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The Supreme Court, upholding a homeowner’s right to protest the Persian Gulf War from her front lawn, ruled Monday that city officials may not enforce a total ban on signs and billboards.

Even an affluent suburb’s desire to preserve its natural, woodsy appearance does not justify barring an individual from putting a protest sign outside her home, the court said in a 9-0 ruling.

The free-speech guarantee in the 1st Amendment prohibits officials from “almost completely foreclosing a venerable means of communication,” such as displaying a sign or billboard, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. While officials certainly can regulate the size and location of signs, they may not forbid them entirely, he said.


City attorneys in Orange County weren’t surprised by the ruling.

If the homeowner were using a sign on the lawn to advertise a business, “that would be another story,” said Santa Ana Assistant City Atty. Robert Wheeler. “But political and religious speech usually enjoy higher protection under the First Amendment.”

In Irvine, a city known for its tough business-sign laws, City Atty. Joel D. Kuperberg said anyone can place a sign on residential property without city regulation, as long as it is not a safety risk. But members of homeowners associations, Kuperberg noted, legally may be asked by their associations to abide by self-imposed rules barring signs.

The Supreme Court’s decision follows a long line of court rulings that have said activities such as soliciting and picketing can be regulated but not forbidden altogether. For example, the court in 1987 struck down an ordinance barring the distribution of leaflets and soliciting in the Los Angeles International Airport terminal. Five years later, however, the justices upheld other airport ordinances that restricted the locations where advocates could distribute leaflets.

Monday’s ruling is a victory for Margaret P. Gilleo, a homeowner in Ladue, Mo., a wealthy suburb of St. Louis. In December, 1990, she irked her neighbors by erecting on her front lawn a 2-by-3-foot sign that declared: “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf. Call Congress Now.” When vandals stole the sign, she put a similar sign in her second-story window.

But city officials then informed her that her signs, including the smaller one in the window, were illegal. A city ordinance prohibited the display of nearly all signs, with but a few exceptions. These included identifying signs for schools, business and churches and foot-square signs to identify a residence or to announce that a property was for sale or rent.

City officials said that they feared “a proliferation of an unlimited number of signs (which) would create ugliness, visual blight and clutter.”


But Gilleo filed a suit in which she contended that enforcing the ordinance against her violated the 1st Amendment. A federal judge agreed and the U.S. appeals court in St. Louis affirmed the decision on grounds that the city law discriminated in favor of real estate signs and against political signs.

In October, the high court agreed to hear the case (Ladue vs. Gilleo, 92-1856), possibly to reconsider the notion that the 1st Amendment forbids laws that discriminate among types of expression. This approach has caused some confusion because it suggests, for example, that Ladue’s ordinance would be constitutional if it also banned building identifications and for sale signs.

Instead of trying to clarify that doctrine, the justices unanimously agreed that Ladue officials could not stop Gilleo from displaying her political sign.