Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Everything you need to know about DC's new rules for displaying campaign signs

This post was written by 4A06 resident Kenny Peskin, who works with sign code issues nationwide for the International Sign Association. Neither Mr. Peskin nor ISA had involvement in the development of DC’s political sign regulations.

A neighbor recently asked about the rules for political signs that have been appearing at roadsides around the area. As we are a long time out from any upcoming political elections, he was wondering if those signs are allowed to be up now in their current location.

As of October 6, signs advertising candidates for the April 2012 primary election may be placed in the right-of-way. That’s not to say that the rules changed on October 6, but that the new rules took effect.

What are the rules?
In August (and again on September 30), DDOT published a notice of emergency and proposed rulemaking that changed the previous rules for placement of non-commercial signs on structures in the public space. Signs now can be displayed for a total period of 180 days and must be removed within 30 days following the event to which it is related. (October 6, 2011 is 180 days before the April 3, 2012 primary election.)

The previous rules allowed noncommercial signs related to a specific event to be placed anytime before the event (and removed within 30 days after the event). Signs not related to a specific event could be placed for up to 60 days.

Why did the rules change?
Litigation – or the threat of litigation. (This is DC after all…) One of the basic principles of municipal sign regulation is that signs contain speech protected by the Constitution. Groups of speakers must be treated fairly and equally. DC was the subject of a preliminary judicial finding that certain types of non-commercial speech in the public space were treated unequally by the existing regulations. Therefore, DC government could either change their regulations or face a situation where a court could invalidate the current rules.

Why do the new rules allow for signs to remain up longer?
Not sure. But it is difficult to legally justify prohibiting a declared political candidate (who has properly filed all paperwork with the Elections Board) from posting signs. And the District has a long history of allowing significant latitude to the expression of political speech.

Could DC prohibit all signs from the public space?
Yes. DC could prohibit all private use of public space for signs.

Should DC prohibit all signs from the public space?
Probably not. Remember, while we are talking about political signs today, there are other forms of signs in the public space that are accepted and generally well-regarded. For example:
  • Many office buildings have signage on canopies, awnings, and marquees that overhang the sidewalk. (These canopies are allowed with the special permission of District regulators.)
  • Every weekend, Realtors place directional signs on street corners pointing to nearby open houses.
  • WMATA allows billboard companies to sell advertising placed on sidewalk bus shelters.
  • Restaurants place sandwich boards and A-frame signs on the sidewalks outside their entrances. Some restaurants with sidewalk tables have umbrellas printed with commercial advertising.
  • Community associations place signs announcing upcoming meetings.
  • Residents place announcements for yard sales, garden tours, and other neighborhood events.
Since the principles guiding sign regulation require equal treatment for similar speech (and greater protection of political speech over commercial speech), if DC is going to allow signs for an open house or the Maronite Church festival or meetings of the Brightwood Community Association, regulations need to allow for political signs in those same public spaces. Remember that because DC is a large, dense, and (usually) walkable city, much of the existing development is built to the property line. While our suburban neighbors have setbacks and front yards, within much of DC signs could be placed only in the public space – or not exist at all. Additionally, due to our unique public space regulations (i.e., Parking Act of 1870), the parts of the city that have setbacks of building front from the street probably do not have the same setbacks of building front from the right-of-way. Prohibiting signs in the public space would lead enforcement officials to remove many signs from what would appear to be residents’ front yards. (The political consequences for this would be overwhelming.) Does this mean that all political signs currently along District roads are legal? No. Remember that the 180 day duration currently only applies to the primary election. (Candidates and issues on the November 2012 ballot will need to wait). Additionally, there are several limitations that are in effect:
  • Within 24 hours of posting each sign, 2 copies of the material shall be filed with DC government. Signs that have not been filed with the “designated agent” are not protected by these regulations.
  • No more than 3 versions or copies of any sign, advertisement, or poster shall be affixed on 1 side of the street within 1 block.
  • Signs cannot be placed on a tree or in a manner that damages the structure to which it is attached. (This might prohibit staples in a wood pole.)
  • The regulations only refer to “lampposts”. Political signs placed on street signage and sign poles are not addressed. Any sign that obscures an official government sign would not be allowed. (Signs that are immediately above/below an official “No Parking” or bus stop sign might be prohibited.)
  • Signs should not impede pedestrian travel or crosswalks or pose a danger to passersby.
  • Signs that are placed in a median (16th St or Military Rd) should not affect the visibility of drivers or pedestrians near an intersection or turning lane. (Especially on 16th Street, any sign that impedes the visibility of drivers turning left should not exist in that location.)
  • Signs should not be placed on private property without the consent of the property owner or tenant. Vacant commercial properties are of specific concern. (Without an owner’s active oversight, empty business parcels often attract large concentrations of political signs.)
Can private citizens remove an illegally placed sign? I would advise against removing a sign yourself. First, many of these signs are located in inaccessible areas (such as the median of Military Rd crossing Rock Creek Park) that pose a danger to anyone. Second, trashing or confiscating a sign could be considered to be theft. Third, removing signs for one candidate but not all candidates could be viewed as restraining protected speech.

My advice is to report an illegal or questionable sign location to DDOT. Let the proper authorities handle it safely and fairly.


  1. The problem with the "let the authorities handle it" recommendation is that, outside of the time limits for signs, most of these rules have been in effect for a long time, and the District has never really done anything to enforce the rules before.

    I'm going to continue to be a vigilante when it comes to non-political signs. I know that the people putting up the "CASH FOR HOUSES" signs aren't submitting proper paperwork with the city, so when I see them. I trash them. If they want to hunt me down, good luck to them.

  2. There's a "Cash for Houses" sign right outside my house that's driving me crazy because it's too high for me to reach. I'm going to bring my step stool outside with me later on, unless DDOT beats me to it (I know that this particular sign has been reported to them).

  3. I made a name for myself as particularly crazy last winter, biking around the neighborhood with a small step-ladder on my bike, getting the hard-to-reach signs when DDOT, DPW, and the rest all failed to do anything about them. :)