Opinion: Scottsdale sign-walker ban is violation of First Amendment

When can good, clean advertising of a legal business get you thrown in jail? When you’re a sign walker in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Starlee Coleman

Starlee Coleman

The city of Scottsdale, famous for its luxury hotels and golf courses, has completely banned “sign walkers” — people who carry signs to advertise local businesses — from using public sidewalks and other public spaces. The ban carries stiff penalties, including jail time.

On Wednesday, the city of Scottsdale will be in court to defend its ban against a state law that struck it down. In 2008, the Arizona Legislature passed a law that pre-empted city bans on sign walkers’ use of public sidewalks and made the practice legal throughout the state. But Scottsdale continued to enforce its ban. So, the Legislature passed a new state law in 2014 to force Scottsdale to lift its ban.

Scottsdale filed a lawsuit against the State, claiming its authority as a charter city trumps state law. Sign walkers have joined the lawsuit to defend the state law and are being represented by the Goldwater Institute.

“Scottsdale is attempting to create a free-speech-free zone when it comes to sign walkers,” said Clint Bolick, the vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and lawyer representing sign walkers. “Scottsdale’s ban on sign walkers not only violates state law, it violates the Constitution.”

Other Arizona communities have put regulations in place to ensure sign walkers are safe, rather than outright banning the practice.

The Goldwater Institute is representing Jim Torgeson and his company, Sign King, LLC, because Scottsdale’s prohibition violates his and his employees’ right to free speech under the Arizona and U.S. constitutions.

Article 2, section 6 of the Arizona Constitution provides: “Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.” Scottsdale’s ban prohibits human-held signs with commercial messages.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the state, finding Scottsdale’s pre-emption claim was invalid. But the court did not address the free speech claims brought by the sign walkers. Scottsdale appealed the case and the free speech issues will be debated 11 a.m. Wednesday, May 13, 2015 at the Arizona Court of Appeals in Phoenix. Specifically, the Institute will argue that protecting free speech is a statewide interest that justifies the state statute and pre-empts Scottsdale’s sweeping ban.

“An ordinance that makes it a criminal act for kids to advertise a car wash goes way too far,” said Bolick. The Goldwater Institute is seeking to have the state’s law legalizing sign walking up held.

Editor’s note: Ms. Coleman is a senior policy advisor at the Goldwater Institute  

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