Southwest Virginia is a beautiful place, but as early as April the landscape has been dotted with political campaign signs.
Why so early? The election isn’t until November. Studies have shown campaign signs have little to no effect. A 2015 Washington Post story said signs are “98.3% useless,” based on a study done by Columbia University Professor Donald Green.
The town of Rocky Mount’s zoning ordinance has no regulation on political campaign signs except that they must be located outside the public right-of-way and removed within seven days after the campaign. Yet, temporary signs in general may be up for only 30 days.
The reason behind this lack of regulation over political signs is the overriding state law that “no locality shall have the authority to prohibit the display of political campaign signs on private property if the signs are in compliance with zoning and right-of-way restrictions applicable to temporary nonpolitical signs, if the signs have been posted with the permission of the owner.”
It could be argued, however, that applying a time limit on campaign signs does not violate the state code by refusing to allow signs to be displayed. A time limit simply dictates how long signs are displayed.
Clearly, Franklin County does not enforce any such codes, as at least one county resident still has a Trump/Pence sign in his or her yard from the last presidential election. Regardless of what candidates residents support, or what office a candidate runs for, there should be some limitation on these signs.
Regulations do exist regarding displaying who pays for and who authorizes signs – which is good and those regulations conform to other states’ – but municipalities can’t place a time limit?
Homeowners Associations are permitted to prohibit residents from placing political signs in common areas of a community. This is much like the state’s right-of-way rule. However, an HOA cannot prohibit a sign in a private yard.
Free speech is important. It’s fully understandable that a state or municipality might be legally unable to hinder a message or a campaign. In fact, it’s key. There is a regulation with political signs that requires a “paid for by” or “approved by” verbiage on the sign, and that is sensible.
However, a time limit on signs really doesn’t hinder a message prior to an election.
North Carolina law allows political signs to be displayed 30 days prior to the start of early voting and up to 10 days after the election. West Virginia places restrictions on the size of the sign (less than 4 square feet in surface area) and prohibits them being placed earlier than 30 days before any primary, general or special election. Tennessee requires signs to be removed within 48 hours of an election. Tennessee law also includes size limitations.
It is not uncommon to see a restriction on signs displayed more than 45 days before an election and 7-10 days after the election. This seems like a reasonable restriction and we urge the county, if not the state to revisit this regulation.