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Small Business Owners Say Chandler is Violating their First Amendment Rights

August 16, 2016

Phoenix–Goldwater Institute lawyers today filed a lawsuit against the city of Chandler, Ariz., challenging the constitutionality of the city’s ordinances that regulate signs. The Institute is representing a group of business and property owners who claim the sign rules violate the rights to free speech and equal protection under the state and federal constitutions.

“Business owners and property owners have the right to communicate freely with potential customers, just like politicians and religious leaders,” said Adi Dynar, one of the Goldwater Institute attorneys who filed the case. “But Chandler discriminates against them by imposing complicated rules that favor some kinds of speech over others. Chandler allows political signs and signs advertising churches to be put up virtually anywhere, but restricts other signs depending on what they advertise.”

The city’s sign code divides signs into a dozen categories depending on the messages the signs convey. Then it imposes complicated rules on each category, leading to inconsistent enforcement that even conscientious business owners cannot understand.

For example, a sign advertising a day care business discount to single parents would be illegal if placed right beside a sidewalk. But if the sign also contains the words “grand opening” or relates to the grand opening of the day care, then the sign is perfectly legal. Different size, dimension and location requirements apply to “open house signs” than to “real estate signs” even when both signs advertise that a property is available for sale or lease.

In the end, how a city official chooses to categorize a sign based on what it says means the difference between the sign complying with or violating the sign code. Violations of the code are criminal offenses, punishable with thousands of dollars in fines and six months in jail.

The Institute’s lawsuit relies on a 2015 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that cities may not impose different rules on signs based on the messages they convey. That decision struck down ordinances in Gilbert, Ariz., which borders Chandler. “Just a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that the First Amendment forbids ‘content-based’ restrictions on speech,” said Dynar, who coauthored a report on the decision that the Goldwater Institute published and distributed to all Arizona cities six months ago.

Small business owners struggle under mountains of red tape and regulations as it is. Chandler’s sign code adds to that burden by making small business owners follow 25 pages of red tape and sometimes hire a lawyer to know where they can put up signs. As a result, small business owners often resort to self-censorship instead of trying to navigate the confusing sign code. Courts have repeatedly said that this sort of self-censorship is the worst type of violation of the First Amendment.

“The right to communicate—whether it be making a political statement or advertising a business—is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions,” said Dynar. “City officials can regulate signs to prevent litter or traffic problems—but they cannot pick and choose who gets to advertise their business.”

Read about the Chandler lawsuit here.

Read our report on city sign codes following the decision of Reed v. Town of Gilbert here.



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