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Signs and the law

Posted: April 14, 2010 4:56 p.m.
Updated: April 15, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Tim Myers recently wrote a column ("History, signs, shoulder shrugging and constitutional law," March 28), suggesting a Santa Clarita ordinance regulating the use of public signage. In this case - political campaign signs - it is unconstitutional.

He also complains that our city attorney should be held to account for excessive shrugging. As for counsel's shoulders, my guess is that his reaction was likely not one of indifference. He already knew the answer.

Myers' interest in the United States Constitution is laudable. We should all know this document better, and I include myself in that group, even though I've passed a couple of state bar examinations.

However, legal tests employed by courts to gauge the constitutionality of a law, such as "strict scrutiny," are a kind of inside baseball in the legal world.

Strict scrutiny doesn't apply to all things First Amendment. But, as Myers implies, if a court finds that if strict scrutiny does apply, that usually means the law is going to overturned in the very next paragraph of the court's opinion.

In this case, Myers omits a critical step in his analysis, because the signage ordinance he describes sounds to be "content-neutral," by his own description.

Meaning, the ordinance is being applied to everyone regardless of who's behind it or what's in the message. A much less strenuous test is applied under such circumstance - not strict scrutiny.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a city ordinance to regulate free speech in terms of political signage is sufficiently justified if it furthers an important governmental interest, is unrelated to the suppression of free expression and is no greater than essential to the furtherance of that interest. (Members of City Council of City of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent (U.S. 1984) 466 U.S. 789, 805.)

In the City Council case, the court determined that cities have an important, aesthetic interest in eliminating visual clutter, even though the message in the clutter is political.

That makes common sense to most of us. It would get pretty messy around here without such a law.

So keep in mind - a shrug may not be a mere shrug, especially if the city's lawyer is being publicly challenged about a law he has taken an oath to uphold.


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