Political signs are protected under free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, but local governments may regulate the placement of political signs on public property. While private property owners have more latitude on their own property, posting political signs on public property falls under the jurisdiction of municipalities, counties and other local governments. Before posting election campaign signs or other political signs, check with your local government authorities regarding the type, size and quantity of signs that may be posted, length of time they may be posted, and specific limits on where they may be posted.
Restrictions on Public Property
Local government restrictions on posting political signs may be ruled unconstitutional if challenged, if the restrictions do not apply equally to all signs posted on public property. Because the First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression, any local government restrictions on posting signs on public property must be content neutral, and must apply only to time, place and manner of posting. For example, municipalities may prohibit posting signs where they would create a traffic hazard or trash nuisance, but such ordinances must apply equally to all signs, including political and commercial ones.
In general, it is legal to post political signs on public property but this does not mean that no rules apply. For example, since a city is required to ensure public safety on roadways, it may prohibit placing signs at crosswalks where they would distract drivers and endanger pedestrians. It may also prohibit placing signs on traffic control devices, and may limit the size of signs or specify the distance from intersections where signs may be placed. Such restrictions are intended to ensure that signs do not cause a safety hazard for motorists, cyclists or pedestrians.
Political Signs on Easements
Easements along roadways or between private property lots are granted to municipalities, utility companies and similar entities that need to access the property for public service. The property itself still belongs to the private property owner, so the person posting the sign must comply with local ordinances and must also obtain permission from the property owner. As with public locations, the local governing authority may regulate the manner in which signs are posted, to ensure public safety.
Distance from Polling Stations
States place limits on campaign activities within a certain distance of the polling station, on the day of the election. Most states place a limit of 100 to 200 feet from the polling station entrance, though limits across the country vary from within the polling center to 600 feet from the polling station. These distance limits on electioneering activities prohibit any display or communication of election issues within this distance. While the primary focus of electioneering distance limits is live campaigning, including discussing election issues or distributing flyers or other written materials, signs posted or held by people are included within this limitation.
- The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: Bill of Rights
- MRSC Insight: It’s Election Time Again! It’s a Good Idea to Review Your Regulations Regarding Election-Related Political Signs
- New York State Department of State, Office of General Counsel: Legal Memorandum LU02; Restrictions on Election Signs
- Arizona Daily Star: New Law Eases Political Sign Placement
- City of Bainbridge Island: A Sign Placement Primer
- National Association of Secretaries of State: State Laws Prohibiting Electioneering Activities Within a Certain Distance of the Polling Place; October 2012
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images