Arizona election season stirs up issues on sign law

Posted at 11:02 AM, Jul 04, 2016

With primary and general elections nearing, Arizona streets will no doubt be plastered with signs.

But there will likely be numerous signs that go beyond the political because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year on a Gilbert sign law.

This month marks the beginning of a five-month period allowing political signs in the public right of way under Arizona law. Political signage is permitted starting 60 days before the primary up until two weeks after the general election. That puts this year's window as July 1-Nov. 23.

Some cities are hesitant about removing any kind sign during that period in the wake of the ruling, the Arizona Capitol Times reported.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a law that set tougher rules for signs that directed people to Sunday church services than for signs for political candidates and real estate agents. The Good News Community Church complained that the law forced the church to put up signs no larger than 6 square feet. The church's signs also could be in place in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and be removed within an hour of its end.

Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and stay in place for several months.

The court found content-based rules for signs violated free speech rights. The ruling essentially threw municipal sign regulations into disarray.

John Baker, a Minnesota-based attorney who works on sign code laws around the U.S, said the effect is "noncommercial speech anarchy."

In Phoenix, the city is applying the court ruling to political season. Unless a sign is larger than 32 square feet or creates a traffic or safety risk, it will likely remain in place for the next several months. As a result, there will be 18,000 signs along roadsides that normally would be removed. Signs promote everything from yard sales to weight loss programs.

Two city employees take down 3,600 commercial signs a month and 42,000 in a year. But they have been assigned to remove graffiti until Nov. 23.

Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said cities across Arizona will have to revise sign code. But a good model for how has yet to be determined.

"Our attorney and a group of city attorneys have been trying for months to put together a model ordinance that harmonizes all this, and it doesn't sound complicated, but it really is," Strobeck said.