Arizona lawmaker wants to ban political signs on street corners, medians

By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Published: Sunday, January 22, 2023 - 10:27pm
Updated: Sunday, January 22, 2023 - 10:35pm

A large Trump/Pence sign mounted above other signs in north Phoenix.
Scott Bourque/KJZZ
A large Trump/Pence sign mounted above other signs at the intersection of 51st Avenue and Cactus Road in Phoenix in 2020.

Sen. Steve Kaiser has introduced legislation that could make him a hero of Arizona motorists — assuming it gets approved and survives a likely court challenge.

The Phoenix Republican wants to ban political signs from street corners, medians and other public rights of way. Kaiser said SB 1116 simply does what his constituents want.

“They hate those things,” he told Capitol Media Services. “They cause a ton of bad traffic because you can’t see around them, people put them in the wrong spot,” Kaiser explained. “It creates a ton of trash.” And then they can get defaced “and everybody freaks out,” he said.

What they also are, Kaiser contends, is unnecessary. “It’s the least effective way to reach voters,” he said.

Kaiser said text messaging and digital ads are both more effective and cheaper. Yet, in his 2020 and 2022 campaigns, Kaiser put up signs around his district.

“If my competitor’s going to do it, of course I’m going to do it,” he explained. Of course, that war of escalation only increases the number of signs that pop up along the roads.

Kaiser also denied that banning these signs becomes an incumbency protection act, denying challengers the ability to create the same name ID that those in office may already have. Instead, he said, the effect would be the opposite.

“Incumbents usually have the most signs and have better funding to carpet bomb an area,” Kaiser said. “They also are better organized and know exactly when to place and where to place, and usually have professionals doing it for hire.”

While it may not seem like it to the average motorist, there actually already are state laws designed to deal with the biennial crop of campaign signs.

They cannot be placed in a location that is hazardous to public safety, obstructs clear vision in the area or interferes with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act not to to block access.

Signs are limited to 32 square feet, or half that size in areas zoned for residential use.

They can be erected no earlier than 71 days before the August primary and must be taken down 15 days after the election.

And they can’t be placed along state highways or overpasses.

Campaign signs
Rocio Hernandez/KJZZ
Campaign signs on a Phoenix street corner.

Kaiser, for his part, believes the simpler solution would be to ban them all.

Nothing in SB 1116 would keep residents and businesses from putting signs on their own private property. But it still may run afoul of the First Amendment.

The key is the fact that, as Kaiser acknowledges, his legislation outlaws only political signs on public rights of way. But signs still could be erected at those same intersections to advertise everything from new subdivisions to yard sales and even church services.

The Town of Gilbert found out the hard way that picking and choosing what signs are acceptable is not legally acceptable.

That case stems from the fact that the Good News Community Church, like many small congregations, had no buildings of its own.

Instead, it met at various rental spaces including public schools and a senior living center. And church officials put up signs directing would-be worshipers to the site.

Only thing is, Gilbert said the signs could not be erected earlier than 12 hours before the event and had to be removed one hour after services ended. And the rules limited the signs to no more than six square feet.

By contrast, political signs could be 32 square feet and remain in place for months. And even what the town called “ideological signs” could be permanent and up to 20 square feet.

Town officials argued there were legitimate reasons for the time limits on church signs, ranging from public safety to blight. But Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in 2015, called that legally irrelevant.

“Innocent motives do not eliminate the danger of censorship presented by a facially content-based statute, as future government officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech,” he said.

“That is why the First Amendment expressly targets the operation of the laws — abridgment of speech — rather than merely the motives of those who enacted them.”

Kaiser called it “an interesting question” of whether the state could do what he proposes and single out only campaign signs for special treatment. But, for the moment, he has no interest in expanding the scope of his measure to impose similar prohibitions on other signs at street corners and in public rights of way.

“I really just want to focus it on political signs because it gets out of hand, it gets crazy,” Kaiser said.

His legislation has not yet been assigned to a committee for a hearing.

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