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