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Goldwater Institute Sues City of Scottsdale for Targeting Farmers Market Signs

October 5, 2016

Phoenix—Represented by lawyers with the Goldwater Institute, today Scottsdale, Ariz., businesswoman Aaron Shearer filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Scottsdale’s ordinances that regulate signs. Ms. Shearer, owner of Green Bee farmers market, argues that the sign ordinances violate her rights to free speech and equal protection under the state and federal constitutions.

“All Aaron wants to do is put up temporary signs to help people find her farmers market. But the City is making her follow a process that it doesn’t make other businesses and politicians follow when they want to put out temporary signs in the exact same spots she wants to use. All she’s asking for is that everyone have to follow the same rules,” said Jared Blanchard, one of the Goldwater Institute attorneys who filed the case.

Ms. Shearer had been running successful farmers markets in Scottsdale for years, using temporary signs to direct customers to the markets without creating any safety or traffic problems. But in 2014 the City started requiring her to follow permitting rules that other similar businesses weren’t required to follow and it severely limited her ability to put out signs. The City even barred Ms. Shearer from placing her temporary signs on private property where the owners gave her permission. The result of the City’s restriction was to destroy her business. Her farmers market went from two profitable markets every weekend down to one market struggling to make $100.

Scottsdale treats temporary signs very differently depending on who the advertiser is and what the signs say. Under the Scottsdale code, if Ms. Shearer were selling Christmas trees, she wouldn’t need a permit for signs at her market. If she were holding a real estate open house, she could put a sign on every corner for a square mile without asking permission. If she were running for office, she could put election signs in any public right-of-way no questions asked. But because her signs direct customers to her farmers market, she has to go through a permitting process where bureaucrats decide how many signs she gets, where she can put them, and for how long. Not only is it unfair to single her out, it’s unconstitutional to have different rules for signs based on their messages.

In its 2015 ruling, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities may not impose different rules on signs based on the messages they convey. That decision struck down sign ordinances in nearby Gilbert, Ariz., and applies to all cities across the country. Scottsdale’s ordinance violates this rule because of the have different application and approval processes for signs based on their messages—exactly what the Reed case forbids.

“The Institute tried to work with Scottsdale to address their unconstitutional sign regulations without going to court,” Blanchard explained. “We sent a letter in November 2015 informing Scottsdale that its sign code was unconstitutional and met in person with city officials in February 2016. The Institute followed up after that meeting by sending the City a copy of its recently published report that explains how cities can fix their sign codes to respect the First Amendment.” But City officials refused to back down.

“Aaron’s farmers market is her livelihood and signs are crucial to her business. Imagine having a legal business that you aren’t allowed to advertise,” said Blanchard. “Elected officials can’t fill right-of-ways with their election signs and then turn around and ban others from having signs in the exact same place. It’s not only unfair, it’s unconstitutional.”

The Institute has been working to ensure equal treatment under the law and to protect the First Amendment since before the Reed decision. The Institute successfully defended the right of a gun safety training company to advertise in City of Phoenix bus shelters and for “sign-walkers” to use public sidewalks to advertise local businesses, and recently filed suit against the City of Chandler, Ariz., challenging its sign ordinance on the same free speech grounds.

Read more about this case Shearer v. Scottsdale here.



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