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Eighth Circuit Strikes Sign Ordinance in Big Case for a Small Town

Sign directing voters to polling place with political signs in the background
By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 24, 2019 10:55 AM

Bel-Nor is a small town in northeastern Missouri, but it is also a stage for greater consequences.

In Willson v. City of Bel-Nor, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said the city's sign ordinance was unconstitutional because it over-regulated content. It could ban a "Welcome Home" banner, a "Happy Birthday" balloon, or an ATD Security sticker on a window, the appeals court noted.

The regulation was so broad, it troubled free speech advocates far beyond the boundaries of the small town. If that weren't scary enough, Bel-Nor is famous for inspiring "The Exorcist."

Three Signs

Of course, the classic horror movie has nothing to do with the court system. Neither does the award-winning "Three Billboards," another Missouri-based film. But Bel-Nor, population 1,500, hasn't had this much attention since Linda Blair took the stage.

At least Lawrence Willson got more than he expected when he posted three signs in his front yard. Two signs supported U.S. Senate candidates, and the third said "Black Lives Matter." Bel-Nor charged Willson with violating its ordinance, which permitted only one sign and not more than one flag.

Willson sued to enjoin the ordinance, arguing that it was content-based, vague, and overbroad. A trial judge ruled against him, but the appeals court said the judge erred. The Eighth Circuit said the ordinance created a "prohibition of alarming breadth."

"Due to the special significance of the right to speak from one's own home, severe restrictions of this right do not afford adequate alternatives," the appeals court judges said.

Flag Issue

Eugene Volokh, a law professor and founder of The Volokh Conspiracy, said the Eighth Circuit got it right. He noted an exception in the ordinance for flags "containing distinctive colors, patterns or symbols used as a symbol of a government institution."

He said the regulation is content-based whether it applies to a sign or a flag. In either case, it depends on the "topic discussed or the idea or message expressed."

With vague laws affecting speech, who knows? That could include movie reviews and a small Midwest city, too.

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