Supreme Court upholds right to post signs on residential property

June 14, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Americans have a broad constitutional right to put up signs -- political, religious, commercial and otherwise -- on their houses and lawns, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

Although conceding that local governments have some power to try to control "visual clutter" in residential neighborhoods, the court indicated that that authority must be used with special care and could never justify a total sign ban.

"Most Americans would be understandably dismayed to learn that it was illegal to display from their window a [small] sign expressing their political views," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.

In an opinion celebrating the home as a traditional platform for expressing individual views, the court struck down a St. Louis suburb's sign ordinance that left residents free to put up signs only if they were selling or renting their houses.

The ruling vindicated a constitutional free-speech claim by Margaret P. Gilleo of Ladue, Mo., a well-maintained residential community near St. Louis. On Dec. 8, 1990, before U.S. forces entered the Persian Gulf war, Ms. Gilleo several times put signs on her lawn or house protesting military action there.

She was repeatedly frustrated when vandals destroyed signs or city officials threatened to prosecute her. When the City Council toughened its sign ordinance, she sued to challenge its constitutionality. She won in lower courts, but the city of Ladue took the dispute to the Supreme Court.

The court reacted by nullifying the ordinance, saying it went too far to "close off" the home as a medium of expression. "Displaying a sign from one's own residence often carries a message quite distinct from placing the same sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means," Justice Stevens wrote.

The opinion noted that signs put up on a home or lawn are "unusuallycheap" and may be the only mode of expression "for persons of modest means or limited mobility." Another strong point about signs at home, the court said, is that they reach neighbors -- "an audience that could not be reached nearly as well by other means."

While the government may have a genuine need to keep down visual blight on its public streets and government facilities, "its need to regulate temperate speech from the home is surely much less pressing," the court remarked.

If residential signs do cause a serious problem in a community, the court pointed out, cities can react with limited measures, well short of a ban. It suggested that cities do not need to stand by if citizens rent out space on their homes or in their yards for others' signs. Its reference to "temperate speech" also left the impression that the court would allow cities to ban obscene signs or those that summoned people to act violently.

The Ladue sign ruling was one of a series of final decisions by thecourt yesterday as it worked toward the end of its term.

Death sentence ruling

Splitting 5-4, the court made it easier for prosecutors to obtain a death sentence for multiple murderers by using a death sentence imposed for one murder as a talking point in urging another jury to do the same.

If a prior jury decided in favor of a death sentence, it does not violate the Constitution to tell that to the next jury when it is considering a life-or-death alternative, the court said in a ruling written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in an Oklahoma case.

It does not take away from a jury's sense of its own responsibility to let it know that another jury already has decided that a murderer should die, the ruling declared. That also did not make the second jury biased in favor of a death penalty, the court said.

Lawyers' credentials

The court ruled unanimously that a lawyer who is also a certified public accountant has a constitutional right to refer to that fact on letterheads, stationery, business cards, or in telephone directory ads.

Overturning a ruling by a Florida state agency to censure a Winter Haven, Fla., lawyer for allegedly misleading potential clients about her professional status, the court ruled that listing the licensed status as a CPA is truthful information that will not mislead the public.

In a separate 7-2 section of the same decision, the court also ruled that a lawyer has a constitutional right to use the label "certified financial planner."

Liability for sheriff's acts

In a brief order, the court agreed to decide at its next term whether a county government may be held liable for unconstitutional actions by the county sheriff. Lower federal courts are in dispute on whether a sheriff is such a key official in county law enforcement that his or her actions may be blamed on the county itself.

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