Friday, July 24, 2015

Free Speech Versus Cheap Advertising

Signs are speech, but sometimes signs are just cheap advertising.

Communities dealing with appearance issues face this very dilemma, and now the little suburb of Downers Grove in Illinois is coming to grips with the way things look. One businessman who wants to hang on to his cheap advertisement does not see things in the same light, and he's ready to go to court.
Not suitable for Downers Grove

He's likely to lose.

As local shops compete with big box retailers or large malls for consumer traffic, the town starts to look at the general appearance of the buildings that house those shops. A lot of garish signage does not attract shoppers, and so ordinances must be put in place to regulate how much is enough. It's a question of esthetics, which can be rather subjective. One man's art is another's eyesore, as they say.

In Downers Grove, the elected officials looked around and saw some hand-painted signs on the sides of buildings, and decreed that such signage was ugly. Big block letters, no artwork to delight the eye. No, just the name of the place, what they were selling, and the phone number, and all of that splattered on a big brick wall.

It's the sort of sign you'd see in the inner city, and the last thing a business district wants is for potential shoppers to associate it with cheap goods. No one is going to stop if they assume they'll find nothing but cheap knock-offs made in China when they want Ralph Lauren. Any town that allows such amateurish artwork is not a town where those with money wish to stop. Not Our Kind, Dear.

Mr. Bob Peterson thinks his sign is fine because it's been there for decades and it's maintained. No peeling paint. No extraneous graffiti. He says he needs the sign to draw in business, but that's the same reason given by every other business man who finds an inexpensive way to advertise and doesn't want to relinquish it in favor of other methods that are more expensive and much more attractive. It's a question of money. Some will send around flyers or coupons. Others slap their name up on an available wall, relieved that they don't have to pay a printer or a distributor to get the word out.

He is suing the city for the right to keep his existing sign. He says it is free speech, and he has a right.

No one is stopping him from advertising his business, however. It's the way he's doing it.

He can advertise all he likes, but the people of Downers Grove also have a right to not have to look at eyesores. Courts typically grant cities some leeway in regulating signs for esthetic purposes, just like they allow regulations on facades and architectural design elements. As Mr. Peterson will discover, he's free to advertise his business, but he can't choose the cheapest form because he doesn't want to spend the money. An ugly sign is not about free speech, it's about looks, and the people who elected those who designed the new sign ordinances don't want to look at ugly signs.

Make it attractive. Say what you like within the bounds of good taste, advertise away, but First Amendment rights don't extend to the right to advertise on the cheap.

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