North Olmsted's Unconstitutional Lack of Content Neutrality

In 1991, the city of North Olmsted, Ohio enacted a comprehensive sign code that banned the installation of new pole signs. Furthermore, it banned existing signs on poles, except for signs with official public notices, the emblem of a government body or charity drives. An approximate seven-year amortization period followed, but nearly 1,000 legal, non-conforming pole signs were allowed to remain standing until January 1, 1998.

The ordinance also prohibited signs from having phone numbers, announcements of sales, or mentioning more than one product. A wine and cheese shop had to choose which product to mention. A Dodge car dealership wouldn't be allowed to add five stars to its sign to indicate that it was a five-star dealer. The city's own chamber of commerce subsequently filed suit against the city.

Additionally, the sign code tasked building officials with designing and sizing signs to be "aesthetically harmonious with an overall urban design for the area." Specifics were not provided for "aesthetically harmonious."

The sign code was thrown out en toto (entirely) because of numerous Constitutional violations. It was blatantly content-based; the criteria for enforcement were highly subjective and vague; the city could show zero correlation between its stated goals, of safety and aesthetics, and the measures it adopted, which completely negated any chance that its measures would be deemed "narrowly tailored" to achieve their stated objectives. The sign code erroneously wanted to discriminate against commercial speech, in contrast to non-commercial speech.

The city had to completely rewrite its sign code. An article about this court case appeared in the December 1999 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. 

Three years later, a similar situation occurred in Thomas Township, Michigan. A pole sign that identified the tenant of a building became a legal, non-conforming sign when the sign code changed. When the tenant moved out, a new sign was needed for the new tenant. The township denied a new permit.

Representatives from the sign industry requested a summary judgment, and greatly relied on the North Olmstead ruling. The court found that 11 of the township's 14 sections ignored the First Amendment and its content-based or prior-restraint provisions. This court case is referenced in the October 2002 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.   

A year after that, back in Ohio, a city 21 miles from North Olmsted repeated the same mistakes. The judge wrote "Broadview Heights' city council and the mayor should have understood that North Olmstead clearly established that an ordinance of the sort in effect in Broadview Heights violated rights under the First Amendment. For this reason, the magistrate judge recommends that the court find the defense of qualified immunity is not available to the mayor and members of the city council of Broadview Heights."