Parts of Brown County’s and Nashville’s sign ordinances could be found to be illegal if they were to be challenged in court because of a recent Supreme Court ruling, attorney David Schilling believes.

Schilling has been aiding the Brown County Area Plan Commission in the process of identifying which parts of the county’s ordinance are problematic and redoing the wording.

The Supreme Court ruling was a result of a 2015 case in Gilbert, Arizona; justices cited freedom of speech.

In Indiana, that case was followed last fall by a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and a Bedford resident. The Bedford man has a long history of erecting large, handpainted signs in his front yard and using them to share his opinions about a variety of issues and people.

In both cases, sign ordinances were challenged because they regulated the content of signs.

Brown County and Nashville’s sign ordinances both mention different sets of rules for signs based on their content. For instance, yard sale signs are able to be displayed for a different length of time than political signs. In town, businesses are held to two signs that show the name of their business but are allowed others that are “informational” only.

Basically, “if you have to read the sign to determine whether or not a regulation applies, then you have a content-based regulation, which is what the Supreme Court says you can’t do,” Schilling told the plan commission.

Schilling said not all content is protected as free speech; there are still federal laws against obscenity.

What the Bedford City Council did last fall in response to the Supreme Court ruling was to specify the size and number of signs allowed on residential and commercial property, but not set restrictions on the content of the sign.

Real estate agents Bob Kirlin and Tom Vornholt attended the Feb. 28 work session of the plan commission to learn how new rules might affect placement of their signs. Kirlin said he didn’t want to see many real estate signs along public roads like other communities have, but they still want to be able to market their properties.

Schilling said it wouldn’t be a problem for the plan commission to regulate the number of signs put out, but the county can’t make that restriction apply only to real estate signs, because that would make the rule content-based.

He said the plan commission could make different rules for “temporary” and for “permanent” signs, but could not be more specific in creating categories where rules weren’t applied equally.

Schilling said different rules could apply in different zoning areas, because that would be based on zoning, not the content of the sign.

He said plan commission members also could decide to put restrictions on how signs are constructed if they wished — such as prohibiting banners — but they could not allow banners for special events and prohibit them for a business advertising a sale.

Schilling said the town would have to go through a similar process to update its sign ordinance; the county planning office enforces both town and county sign rules.

He said he didn’t think any change in local laws would result in people having to redo their signs — if those signs are already up and lawful.

“Mainly, I think it will allow people to put up signs they couldn’t put up before,” he said.

Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.