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Why Are Home and Yard Signs Free Speech?

Close-up Of Gavel With Small House Model In Courtroom
By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Americans often put signs in their yards, but many don't understand how the First Amendment protects their right to do it.

According to a survey, one third of Americans cannot name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Another third of them can name only one. It's ironic, isn't it, that the people who have more free speech rights than most in the world also don't know what they are?

Do you know why yard signs are free speech?

Free Speech

Freedom of speech is only one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The other freedoms protect: religion, the press, peaceable assembly, petitions to the government for grievances. The First Amendment says nothing, however, about home or yard signs.

The right to post signs on private property came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which exits to interpret the Constitution. So by interpretation, you can add books full of First Amendment rights. For example, you have the right to express yourself by dancing almost naked. But that's another, slightly more embarrassing story.

In 2014, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to put up signs in a case called Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona. The justices said the town's sign code was unconstitutional because it singled out different signs for special treatment. The code set size, location, and times when signs could be displayed. The Supreme Court scrutinized the code in a way that makes it almost impossible for government to abridge freedom of speech. A sign regulation would have to be narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest, which means no, oh little town of Gilbert, you can't tell churchgoers to take down their signs.

Not Free Speech

Of course, speech is not really free at all. There are always consequences to speaking your mind, and sometimes it will land you in jail. For example, someone said "you can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre." People often quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, but he actually said: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." In that 1919 case, Charles Schenck was arrested and convicted for sending leaflets to persuade potential draftees not to join the United States in World War I. The Supreme Court said that was not free speech; that was dangerous speech.

So basically, you can post all the signs you want on your yard as long as the messages don't present a clear and present danger. There are other limits, like no obscenity, but that's another, more disturbing story.

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