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Appeals Court Upholds DC Sign Law

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 01, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.

Well, only for 30 days after an event in Washington, D.C.

That's the gist of a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia after two activist groups claimed the district's sign law violated the First Amendment. The ordinance allows signs to be posted on lampposts for up to 180 days, except that event signs must be removed at least 30 days after an event.

The federal appeals court acknowledged that the law may favor non-event signs, but it does not violate free speech rights. The court reversed a trial judge's decision in the case and vacated a sanctions award against the defendant.


"The District's regulation of the public's use of city lampposts as convenient places to post signs is a content neutral time, place, and manner restriction that is sufficiently tailored to a significant governmental interest in avoiding clutter to comport with the First Amendment," the appellate court said.

In the unanimous ruling, the panel said the sign law did not regulate any particular political expression. It applied equally to all signs, whatever the expression.

"It instead simply reflects the commonsense understanding that, once an event has passed, signs advertising it serve little purpose and contribute to visual clutter," Judge Cornelia T.L.Pillard wrote.

Second Cite

It was the second time in as many weeks that the same plaintiff has been rebuffed by the court. Before the election, the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition lost a decision over taking space on Freedom Plaza for Inauguration Day. In the latest case, ANSWER lost its challenge to the sign law. Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation joined ANSWER in the sign case.

The plaintiffs had been winning at the trial court, where the judge found the sign law violated their constitutional rights to free speech and awarded sanctions against the defendant. The trial court penalized the defendant because it conducted discovery without authorization under the court's scheduling order.

The appeals court said the scheduling order was not clear and vacated the sanctions.

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