Originally created 09/06/98

Residents sue city over sign ordinance



AVONDALE ESTATES, Ga. -- Four Avondale Estates residents have sued the city over an anti-sign ordinance that prohibits all residential yard or window signs, including political signs, sale signs and banners.

The three lawyers and a real estate agent say the anti-sign ordinance violates their First Amendment rights to free speech. It also hinders their ability to use and enjoy their properties in violation of equal protection and due process, the suit claims.

Anne Keating, the real estate agent, wants to place "for sale" signs in the yards of her clients.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit Friday in federal court, wrote Mayor John Lawson last October asking the city to amend the ordinance. The city, just east of Atlanta, took no action.

"People using their front yards and windows for making political statements is a very traditional American speech activity," said ACLU lawyer Neil Bradley of Avondale.

The city of 2,500 was developed in the 1920s around an English Tudor theme. The city says signs are restricted to "assure aesthetic harmony," enhance the city's business and economy, ensure traffic safety and maintain the tranquil environment of residential areas.

"I think the original ordinance was enacted with racial motivations and, quite frankly, I find it crazy that under Georgia law I can walk around the streets with a 9mm handgun strapped to my waist, but I can't have a sign in my front yard," said plaintiff Sean Maher, a Fulton County public defender.

Howard Hunter, dean of Emory University law school and a First Amendment scholar, said the ordinance may survive the challenge.

"There's an argument to be made that signs are a form of visual pollution," he said. "The city's in a stronger position if it bans everything. It would have a real problem if it only banned political signs and didn't ban commercial signs or vice versa."