When the Court Overthrew Madison, Wisconsin's Ban on Portable Signs

Madison, Wisconsin, the home of the University of Wisconsin, once had regulations that banned virtually all portable signs, and signs in the public right-of-way. The city determined that such signs were "more distracting and hazardous to pedestrian and traffic safety, less compatible with surrounding uses and graphics, of lesser quality and more difficult to uniformly regulate."

Two business owners both had niche stores a half block off the main pedestrian flow, State Street, with low-visibility locations. Their solution was 6-square-foot, A-frame, sidewalk signs. Although the ban had been in effect for 14 years, the city began citing these two business owners. When they removed their signs, their sales plummeted. When they again put out their signs, fines amounted to $8,700.

Two local newspapers editorialized in favor of the business owners. College students also sided with the businesses. The issue ended up in municipal court.

The court cited the city's "sporadic enforcement" of the sign ban. It also cited the lack of content neutrality as unconstitutional. It also noted the use of an A-frame sign that directed motorists to a parking lot owned by the city.

An account of these proceedings appears in the September 2002 issue of Signs of the Times magazine