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Supreme Court to Consider Town's Anti-War Sign Ban

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

In December 1990, as a U.S.-led clash with Iraq appeared imminent, Margaret Gilleo put up an anti-war sign at her house in this fashionable suburb of St. Louis.

The Persian Gulf War came and went. A fight in Ladue over that 2-by-3-foot yard sign only escalated.

This week, what began as a local dispute over a city's sign prohibition becomes a major First Amendment test at the Supreme Court. Ladue prohibits its residents from erecting political and social signs at their homes.

The case, to be heard by justices on Wednesday, casts free speech proponents against a municipality's desire to control visual blight. Advertisers, publishers and free speech activists have sided with Gilleo, as has the U.S. solicitor general. Numerous governmental organizations and seven states, including Maryland, are with Ladue, saying strong anti-sign laws are necessary to protect the scenic beauty and safety of their jurisdictions.

"I've been protesting war since Vietnam," said Gilleo, who paid $4 to a church group for the sign that said, "Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now." Gilleo said she had heard of other people being asked by police to remove signs. "And they just grumbled. But this issue was so important to me" that she decided to sue the city.

"It's not the message," insisted Jordan B. Cherrick, lawyer for the city. "It's the medium."

Ladue officials think signs are ugly. "Ladue has comprehensively protected aesthetics from its beginning" in 1936, Cherrick said. "Police have enforced the ordinance against commercial signs that say, `Siding going up,' and against ones that say `Happy Birthday.' "

Judges traditionally have given political speech, such as Gilleo's anti-war protest, the greatest protection under the Constitution. But Supreme Court precedent on the different levels of protection for noncommercial speech ("Save the Whales") and commercial speech ("Eat at Joe's") is murky. A ruling in the case could help clarify how far governments may go in regulating both commercial and noncommercial speech.

Relying on the general rule that noncommercial speech has greater constitutional coverage, lower courts in the Gilleo case concluded that Ladue was impermissibly favoring commercial speech (such as real estate signs) over political speech.

Ladue's sign ordinance generally prohibits all signs within its 8{ square miles. Exemptions are included for real estate signs, road and safety hazard signs, health inspection signs, public transportation markers and commercial signs in commercially zoned or industrial districts.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, "Ladue has not shown that the prohibited signs cause more aesthetic, safety and property value problems than the permitted signs."

"The city is just as lovely as it was before I put the sign up," Gilleo said during an interview at her colonial-style house. Gilleo, who works for an organization that retrains defense-industry contractors, grew up in the St. Louis area and after living in other parts of the country returned to the area four years ago.

The city ordinance in effect when the litigation began was amended slightly during the course of proceedings. (It still was found to be unconstitutional.) Gilleo, who replaced the original yard sign with an 8{-by-11-inch one in a second-floor window, was cited under the new ordinance for that sign. It said, "For Peace in the Gulf."

Under previous Supreme Court cases, when a city ordinance effectively targets the content of a particular kind of speech, the city must be able to show that the law serves a "compelling interest," such as public health or welfare, and the ordinance must be narrowly drawn to achieve that end. Lower courts said Ladue failed that test.

But city lawyer Cherrick told the justices in his brief that the city interest in aesthetics, privacy, safety and the preservation of real estate values is overriding. "Without its sign ordinance," he said, "Ladue would suffer from the proliferation of signs and resulting visual blight that exist in some of Ladue's neighboring cities."

Cherrick said the sign ban does not threaten a person's freedom of speech because alternative modes of expression are available: for example, letters, flyers, telephone calls, bumper stickers, newspaper advertisements and speeches.

Gilleo said the yard sign was an unparalleled "quick, inexpensive response" to sentiment that the United States was about to become involved in a war.