Judge overturns Hamilton County’s sign ordinance

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With less than a month to go until the primary election, political candidates once again may put their campaign signs in Hamilton County rights of way.

Hamilton Superior Court Judge William J. Hughes ruled April 11 that the county’s sign ordinance, adopted Feb. 12, is unconstitutional because it restricts some signs – such as political ones – in unincorporated areas but allows commercial signs, which are regulated by a different county code.

Rick Sharp, a Carmel resident running for a seat on the Hamilton County Council, filed a lawsuit Feb. 20 challenging the sign ordinance. He said that it restricted political free speech and limited chances for lesser-financed candidates to build name recognition.

Hughes stated the county has the right to limit signs to improve aesthetics and ensure public safety – two goals stated in the ordinance – but that it didn’t make sense to then allow only certain kinds of signs, especially when content is the determining factor.

“Defendants have made no showing whatsoever that, in the unincorporated part of Hamilton County – the vast majority of Hamilton County Right of Way – commercial signs do not also interfere with the County’s asserted interests in improving aesthetics and ensuring safety,” Hughes stated in the ruling.

The judge threw out the ordinance for incorporated areas as well, stating in the ruling that it is “over-inclusive for sweeping too much speech within its reach.”

“On its face, the Sign Ordinance prohibits a stranded motorist, for example, from placing a sign or row of signs – in the form of flares – around her car on the roadway’s shoulder,” the ruling states. “On this basis, too, the ordinance is constitutionally infirm.”

County commission President Christine Altman, who is running a primary campaign to keep her seat, said commissioners will meet to determine if they will appeal ruling.

“While we disagree with the court’s interpretation of the ordinance and the law, we respect that the trial court has issued its determination,” she stated in an email. “In the interim, we caution that anyone placing signage in county right of way exercise due caution not to endanger themselves or the traveling public in their placement.”

Sharp said he is “very happy” about the ruling, although he doesn’t plan to put his campaign signs in the county’s rights of way until closer to the May 8 election day.

“It was a good day for Hamilton County (April 11),” Sharp said. “The First Amendment is alive and well.”

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