Political Signs on Limited Public Forums

In General by Coolidge Wall

As the 2020 primary and general election swiftly approaches, local governmental entities (i.e., cities, townships, villages, and municipalities) will be required to regulate hundreds of polling stations throughout the State of Ohio for citizens to vote for candidates in national, state, and local elections. These local governmental entities must effectively balance voters’ rights to free speech and the local interest to keep polling stations safe, organized, and void of any political bias for any of the candidates.

Churches that serve as polling stations across Ohio have attempted to regulate the type of political signs displayed on their property. According to case law from the federal court for the Southern District of Ohio, churches are considered a “limited public forum” on election day. As a limited public forum, any individual who desires to engage in political discourse on election day has the right to do so at a polling station. Churches must permit individuals “who desire to engage in political discourse or electioneering activities” to display signs and engage in political activity on the day of the primary election and the day of the general election. However, this federal decision does not leave local governmental entities without a remedy.

A local governmental entity may restrict political signs on “limited public forum” property so long as the restriction is “reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum and is viewpoint neutral.” In other words, a local governmental entity may create an ordinance that sets boundaries for the display of political signs and demonstrations of political discourse.

A federal court in the Southern District of Ohio held that the Butler County Board of Elections and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were justified in creating a 100-foot campaign-free zone because it sufficiently balanced constitutional protections and the rights of private property owners. It should be noted that the 100-foot campaign-free zone is measured from the building where voting takes place and does not cover the entire property (i.e., political signs could be displayed in a church parking lot if the signage was approximately 100 feet from the church’s entrance).

If a local governmental entity were to create an ordinance that would create a 100-foot campaign-free zone, churches would not be able to completely remove the signs from their property, but it would create a significant space between their building and the political signs.

If you have any questions regarding this topic, please feel free to e-mail Jason Norwood at [email protected]