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Camp Hill's Sign Ordinance

From the Advocacy Committee

June 3, 2024

Camp Hill’s Sign Ordinance: Why it’s Unconstitutional


Thirty years ago, the United States Supreme Court, in City of Ladue v. Gilleo, recognized that the display of political, religious, and personal messages on yard signs is a “venerable means of communication” that can “reflect and animate change in the life of a community.” In Gilleo, the most famous yard sign case and a staple of law school casebooks, the Court struck down an ordinance that prohibited all signs on private property except for property identification signs, for sale signs, and several commercial categories of signs.


In many cases since then courts have been asked to balance the First Amendment rights of residents and the interest of municipalities in protecting safety and aesthetics. A recent addition to the litany of yard sign cases is Camp Hill Republican Association v. Borough of Camp Hill, in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision striking down the Borough’s sign ordinance as unconstitutional.


The First Amendment prohibits laws that abridge a person’s freedom of speech. Importantly, it prevents the government from restricting speech based on its content. If a municipality wants to restrict speech based on its content, the restriction must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.


Camp Hill’s ordinance imposes a content-based restriction on speech. The ordinance defines a category of “Personal Expression Signs” which are signs that express “an opinion, interest, position, or other noncommercial message.” The ordinance limits the number of Personal Expression Signs that a resident can display to two, and if the sign is in connection with an event, the resident can display the sign for only sixty days before the event. Campaign signs fall into the category of Personal Expression Signs in connection with an event. Because a person would have to read a sign to determine which category it is in (as opposed to considering only the sign’s size or location), the restriction is content based.


A court will uphold a content-based restriction if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. The Borough pointed to aesthetics and safety as compelling interests that the sign ordinance serves. The court recognized that these interests are legitimate but disagreed that they are compelling. Even if aesthetics and safety are compelling interests, the ordinance was not narrowly tailored to serve them. Only certain types of signs were limited by number, and campaign signs are no greater an eyesore than other types of signs. In addition, all types of signs, regardless of their content, can blow into the street and otherwise distract drivers, thus endangering public safety. Thus the sixty day, two sign restriction for only some signs was not narrowly tailored to protect aesthetics and public safety.


Where does the court’s opinion leave the Borough? A municipality can restrict signs based on the time, place, and manner of their display, but such restrictions cannot discriminate based on the content that the signs communicate. A two-sign limit is fine, so long as the two-sign restriction applies to all types of signs. When the Borough Council goes back to the drawing board, it will have many judicial opinions, including Camp Hill Republican Association v. Borough of Camp Hill, to guide it in fashioning a constitutionally sound sign ordinance.

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