Naperville loosening sign restrictions to ensure free speech

  • Naperville is beginning to discuss changes to its sign code including what sizes of temporary signs are appropriate after a Supreme Court decision made it illegal to regulate signs based on what type of speech they contain.

      Naperville is beginning to discuss changes to its sign code including what sizes of temporary signs are appropriate after a Supreme Court decision made it illegal to regulate signs based on what type of speech they contain. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/25/2016 8:23 PM

Rules that regulate signs soon will be shifting in Naperville to ensure the right to free speech is protected.

The city is updating its sign code after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about a year and a half ago that prevents signs from being regulated differently based on their content.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So for Naperville, along with most municipalities across the suburbs, that means old policies about political signs, real estate signs, menu boards, event signs and sale announcements are outdated and possibly unconstitutional.

Naperville attorneys and city planners think they've come up with a new formula that follows the Supreme Court ruling but still protects against unnecessary visual clutter.

The plan, recommended for approval by a 5-3 vote of the planning and zoning commission, creates one broad category for all types of temporary signs posted for noncommercial purposes and removes content restrictions on several types of business-related signs.

The city council must review and approve the plan before it takes effect, and several planning and zoning commission members suggested there could be changes. But what's proposed largely keeps things the same for postings such as political signs.

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Temporary signs not for business purposes could be a maximum of 5 feet tall and cover a maximum of 4 square feet if they're posted in a residential area, or 12 square feet in a commercial area. There would be no limit on the number of signs and no restrictions on what they could or couldn't say.

For political signs, this changes the size from the current 8-square-foot limit but keeps the freedom to post them whenever is desired, with no limit on the number of days before or after an election when they can be visible.

Planning and zoning commission member Krishna Bansal voted against the proposed changes, saying the right to speech still should be governed in some way to prohibit hate speech and profanity.

But what's proposed so far has the city stepping out of reviewing sign content.

In several locations where a specific type of business-related sign used to be permitted, such as the yard of a house for sale where a for-sale sign is allowed, or the drive-through lane of a restaurant where a menu board is permitted, the same size of sign will be allowed, but the city no longer could regulate what's said on it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So a sign in front of a house for sale no longer has to say "for sale"; it could be changed, for example, to say "vote for candidate X," Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristen Foley said. The same goes for signs that mark subdivisions and commercial developments.

City staff members don't think loosening these regulations will lead to subdivision signs saying anything other than "Brookdale" or "Tall Grass," or menu boards promoting mayoral candidates, as businesses still will have the same needs to post logical information. But the changes mean the city couldn't step in if something seemingly out of place was posted.

The proposed sign code update makes two other notable changes.

One would end the city's practice of placing signs on streetlight posts showing the direction of places of worship; city attorneys say the signs represent the city regulating speech, so they will be taken down as maintenance occurs.

The other update would prohibit messages on electronic signs from changing more than once every 24 hours -- a far cry from the changes every 10 seconds currently allowed.

Bansal and others on the commission questioned the logic and said requiring the message to stay the same all day would defeat the purpose of having an electronic sign. Although commissioners encouraged the city council to consider tweaking this portion, they said the proposal largely accomplishes its goal.

"At the end of the day, we have to be in compliance with the Supreme Court," planning and zoning commission Chairwoman Kamala Martinez said. "That's what we're sitting here talking about."

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