Carmel considers changes to sign ordinance in response to Supreme Court ruling


The Carmel City Council is considering changes to the city’s sign ordinance as a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. As a result, political speech can’t be regulated for its content.

The Supreme Court case dealt with an Arizona town that placed restrictions on the display of certain signs based on categories, such as “political signs” or “ideological signs.”

In a unanimous 2015 decision in “Reed v. Gilbert,” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that “because content-based laws target speech based on its communicative content, they are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.”

As a result, Carmel planning officials spent months meeting with business leaders, including OneZone, to craft changes to the existing city sign ordinance. The city will do away with most categories for signs, such as “holiday,” “political,” “real estate,” “menu boards” and more. Carmel can still regulate the size and location of signs as long as it’s not based on  content.

“For some time, the Supreme Court has distinguished between commercial speech and political speech,” Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said. “With political speech, there are fewer regulations. You can still regulate time and space but just not content.”

Some city councilors said they’ve heard complaints from neighbors about political signs remaining in a resident’s yard, but the city’s hands are tied. City officials can’t tell someone to remove a Trump or Clinton sign from their yard, even if it’s annoying to the neighbors. People also can leave signs in their yard to announce someone’s birthday year-round, if they want. Homeowners associations could regulate aesthetics, but the city can’t, based on content, Brainard said.

There are some limitations, though. A sign can’t be vulgar or threatening.

“You have free speech, but there are still limitations,” Brainard said. “You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.”