A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a district court’s ruling against the Town of Cary, North Carolina, and ordered the district court to enter judgment in the Town’s favor. John Baker co-authored an amicus brief on behalf of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, Scenic America, the North Carolina League of Municipalities; the Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties, and the Municipal Association of South Carolina in support of the effort of the Town of Cary to overturn a judgment against it arising out of enforcement of its sign ordinance.
The case began when Mr. Bowden, the original plaintiff (now deceased), painted an angry message in orange fluorescent spray paint on the front of his home in a quiet residential zone in which signs of that size, or using fluorescent paint, were unlawful. After the town ticketed Mr. Bowden, he filed suit claiming that the Town violated his First Amendment rights.
The district court had ruled that the ordinance was a content-based constraint because the definition of “sign” in the ordinance included exceptions that applied to “public art” and “holiday decorations.” The Fourth Circuit’s decision “reject[s] any absolutist reading of content neutrality” (slip op. at 10), and concludes that the ordinance is content-neutral, using a “reasonable fit” test. It found that it is “reasonable to presume that public art and holiday decorations enhance rather than harm aesthetic appeal, and that seasonal holiday displays have a temporary, and therefore less significant, impact on traffic safety.” (Id. at 16).