Political signs may be subject to regulations

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(Host) Drive around Vermont and you may think that this is the year of the “super-sized” political sign.

Lawn signs are a staple of most political contests. But some of them may be subject to state or local regulation.

VPR’s John Dillon explains:

(Dillon) Both Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Tarrant and Congressman Bernie Sanders are using large signs to get their names before voters.

Tarrant’s orange and red signs measure four feet by eight feet. Campaign manager Tim Lennon says the signs are – well, a sign – of the enthusiasm the contest has generated.

(Lennon) “It does show the intensity and level of interest in this race – far more than we’ve probably traditionally seen in Vermont. And I think you will be seeing them on barns and fences throughout the state.”

(Dillon) In general, it’s illegal to put political signs up within a highway right of way – that’s 25 feet from the center of a road. The law also says signs cannot be put up in a way that restricts a driver’s view of the road.

Vermont’s ban on billboards also applies to political advertising. Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz explains:

(Markowitz) “Three things apply to signs, whether they’re on private property or not. We’ve got a billboard law. That applies. We’ve got local zoning in many places, as well as local sign ordinances in many places. There is no exemption for political campaign signs so if you plan to have a large sign up you need to make sure that you’re complying with all the appropriate laws.”

(Dillon) Markowitz says her office has received an unprecedented number of complaints about the large signs.

She points out that state law says political signs are supposed to be up for just two weeks before an election. Markowitz says that provision is often ignored.

(Markowitz) “So those signs can go up on your property. Ideally it’s a couple weeks before the election. We do know many people in Vermont put up signs earlier than that. And we haven’t had a court challenge. So until there’s a court challenge we won’t know what part of the law the court would find acceptable. But right now, the law is the law.”

(Dillon) Tarrant’s campaign manager Tim Lennon says the signs are all on private property, outside the highway right of way. He says the campaign has advised volunteers to check with local officials to make sure the signs are legal.

But Lennon says First Amendment free speech protections probably trump any restrictions on the signs.

Courts have held that states cannot ban political signs, but they can regulate how and where they are placed.

John Kessler is general counsel with the Agency of Commerce and Community Affairs. He also chairs the state Travel Information Council, which implements the state’s outdoor sign law.

Kessler says the state would need a compelling interest to regulate political speech.

(Kessler) “Essentially the courts would have to balance the state’s interest versus the interests of the individual. The state’s interest would have to be compelling, narrowly tailored one of the least restrictive measures, versus the significant first amendment rights granted under the constitution for political speech.”

(Dillon) There’s been at least one official complaint against the Tarrant signs. A St. Albans resident complained to the zoning administrator that the signs violated the town ordinance.

But the town official says the regulations are silent on political signs, so she says the signs are probably exempt.

As for the Bernie Sanders’ signs, they’re also coming in this year’s super size. His red and white banners are showing up on the sides of barns and buildings around the state.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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