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First Amendment Lawsuit Challenges City’s Ban of “For Sale” Signs

A California man has filed a lawsuit alleging that his town’s sign ordinance violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In Cefali v. City of San Juan Capistrano, the plaintiff had parked his car on the residential street in front of his home and placed a “For Sale” sign on the back windshield. Soon after, the plaintiff received a $50 ticket for violating a San Juan Capistrano ordinance. The ordinance makes it illegal to display a “For Sale” sign on a vehicle parked on a public street. After paying the fine, the plaintiff brought suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

In his suit, the plaintiff alleges that the ordinance is a content-based ban on protected speech. The plaintiff claims that while “For Sale” signs are not allowed to be placed on cars, many other types of signs can legally be placed on cars in the city. For example, the plaintiff claims that he could legally place a political sign on his car without receiving a ticket.

If the plaintiff’s claims about the ordinance are true, it seems likely that the ordinance will be found to be a content-based restriction of free speech under the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Under the Reed decision, a content-based ordinance is presumed to be invalid and the government must justify the ordinance by showing that it is the least restrictive means of achieving a “compelling government interest.” In reality, this test is almost always fatal to an ordinance.

If it does not dispute the plaintiff’s factual characterization of the ordinance, the city will likely argue that the ordinance is content-neutral. If the ordinance is not based on content, the city faces a far easier road to proving its legality. The city is also likely to argue that a “For Sale” sign is commercial speech and thus not entitled to the level of First Amendment protection that is due other types of speech. Like many First Amendment cases, this case could turn on whether the plaintiff can show that the city is discriminating based on the content of the speech in question.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have successfully brought First Amendment challenges to ordinances all around the country. The firm is among the national leaders in defeating unconstitutional laws. If you feel that an ordinance is violating your rights, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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