Lawrence Willson, a homeowner in Bel-Nor, Missouri, displayed three free-standing stake-mounted signs in his front yard. One sign stated “Black Lives Matter,” and had been in his yard since 2014. The other two signs (which had been in place since 2016) stated “Clinton Laine,” and “Jason Kander U.S. Senate.” Each of the signs was approximately 18 by 24 inches in size. In 2017, the City issued a citation for violation of a local law restricting homeowners from displaying more than one “stake-mounted” sign at a time, among other restrictions.
Willson subsequently sued the City, claiming the City’s ordinance violated his free speech and other constitutional protections. The district court ruled in the City’s favor, finding the ordinance was content-neutral and narrowly tailored to address the City’s interests in aesthetics and traffic safety.
On appeal, however, the 8th District Court of Appeals blocked Bel-Nor from enforcing its sign law. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the court noted that “content-based laws – those that target speech based on its communicative content – are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” In this case, the 8th District found a provision in the City’s ordinance that treats signs and flags differently, depending on their content, problematic. Specifically, the court noted that whether a particular “fabric” is a sign or a flag under the City’s ordinance depends on the “topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.” Since the topic or message of the sign/flag determines whether a sign or flag is prohibited by the ordinance, the ordinance is a “content-based” regulation under the Reed case, and the court found that the City could not show a compelling government interest to justify the regulation.
To read Willson v. City of Bel-Nor, click here.
Post Authored by Megan A. Mack and Julie Tappendorf