As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, my friend Mark Sigmon filed a case on behalf of the ACLU seeking to prohibit a town in North Carolina from enforcing its sign ordinance against a man who painted “Screwed by the Town of Cary” on the side of his house. Well, yesterday, the federal district court granted the plaintiff David Bowden summary judgment and entered a permanent injunction against the town.
The court concluded that the sign ordinance was content-based under the First Amendment because it required more than a perfunctory inquiry into the content of signs in order to determine whether the ordinance would apply. For example, the ordinance required the town to determine whether something was a “work of art,” a “holiday message,” etc. The court then concluded that the town’s asserted interests in aesthetics and traffic safety were not compelling, and that even if they were, the ordinance was not narrowly tailored because it would allow, for example, a huge flashing holiday sign.
The opinion in the case makes clear that governments should not be in the business of looking at the substance of speech, except in the most superficial manner – for example, to determine if something is commercial speech or not. Because the law is not entirely clear in this area, if the Town of Cary appeals, the resulting opinion should be instructive. Hopefully the Fourth Circuit would affirm the district court and take another step to ensure that core speech is relatively unmolested. Especially political speech that you write on your own house.
Kudos to Mark and to the First Amendment.