. . . restricting Central Radio’s banner was warranted, according to the majority, because some passersby had “reacted emphatically” to the sign by waving, honking and shouting in support when they saw it. The majority claimed that these expressions of support were evidence that “motorists [we]re distracted by [the] sign while driving.”
By that reasoning, when it comes to roadside signage, political speech would likely be less protected than commercial speech, provided the latter isn’t too provocative. If the argument here is that the more successful a roadside sign is at attracting attention and reaction from motorists the more cause the city has to prohibit it, that’s a rule that basically empowers cities and states to ban any signs with contentious political messages. In fact, it would conceivably empower them to prohibit any sign that criticizes the same governments making the rules. And the more egregious the government misconduct the sign is protesting, the more cause the government would have to ban it.
This reasoning also presents an interesting dilemma for commercial advertising — it seems to mean that the more successful your ad is at attracting the attention of potential customers, the more legal justification the city has to ban it.
Of course, those are just the legal issues here. There are political considerations as well. In order to rule on the free speech claim, the courts have to assume that the city is arguing in good faith. There’s no reason the rest of us should. We’re free to consider the possibility that city officials are merely upset that they lost the eminent domain case, and so they’re now pettily preventing the property owner from celebrating his victory over them. I’d say that’s not only possible, it’s likely. Imagine if another building a few miles down the road put up a banner celebrating the city’s wise and prudent development policies. Does anyone honestly think the owner of that property would need to go to court in order to keep his banner?