Political signs are ubiquitous during election seasons. For some an eye-sore, others a treasured first amendment right. A bill in front of the state legislature is aiming to repeal Kansas’ current law that prohibits cities from regulating placement of political signs displayed for a 45-day period prior to an election and few days after, and it’s creating a lot of consternation.
The law currently says “No city or county shall regulate or prohibit the placement of or the number of political signs.”
Perhaps to assuage concerns that full repeal would allow cities to interfere with private property rights, the League of Municipalities proposed an amendment limiting control to placement in a public right-of-way “.. to protect the health, safety and welfare of such cities and counties.” The Local Government Committee rejected the amendment, however. Amanda Stanley, General Counsel for the League of Municipalities, believes there is some concern with the indemnification clause, which says the state will indemnify cities and counties against lawsuits over regulation. Stanley also said some committee members believe the current blanket prohibition on regulation is unconstitutional given a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The current law as it stands was passed in 2015 shortly before a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, which addressed content based restrictions of signs. The SCOTUS opinions impacted political signs in many jurisdictions, Kansas included.
“Basically the idea is if you have to read a sign in order to enforce a rule, then you are probably discriminating based off the speech. So political signs need to be treated the same as garage sale signs,” says Amanda Stanley, General Counsel for the League of Municipalities.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt says the current ban on city regulation is constitutional, however. Schmidt was responding to Rep. Blake Carpenter’s request for a legal opinion on the matter.
Yet not all cities and counties in Kansas are the same. The League of Municipalities which wrote and sponsored the bill feels the one size fits all approach of the bill did not fit with what local authorities wanted.
“The law allows you place a sign in someone’s yard in the right of way without their permission. People have been angry about that,” says Stanley. “Local governing bodies are saying sorry there is nothing we can do, because in order to comply with the statute and the constitution, we just can’t enforce sign codes.”
While the repeal of the current law would give more authority of sign laws at the local level. Some are concerned that giving local jurisdictions more power in the area may create more headaches at the state level. The City of Haysville about 20 minutes south of Wichita made headlines in October 2018 for passing a sign law that restricts political sign to be displayed for just 14 days before an election. Haysville City Councilman Russ Kessler says he is neither for nor against repealing the existing law, but would like assurances from the state that restrictive local laws could be addressed.
Some city laws are restricting political signs because they are classified as temporary signs. This shortens the amount of the time they can be displayed.
“People are voting before signs can even be put up on people’s property which I was against,’ says Russ Kessler, Haysville City Councilperson.
Mail-in ballot are sent 20 days before an election. Early voting starts 15 days before. This means in Haysville political signs cannot be displayed until after voting has started. Kessler does not think it is rational to prohibit signs like this.
“I would hope the state would step in and say ‘hey you know people are voting before you are allowing freedom of speech of political signs to be displayed. I think that state would step in at that point,” says Kessler “The current statue was to prevent that from happening.”