Chances are you’ve seen them on street corners, near new home subdivisions and car dealers: people holding signs directing motorists to stop by. Mostly the human billboards are ignored. But Scottsdale has decided they’re an eyesore and concluded that, under city ordinances, people who hold the signs are committing a crime.
James Torgeson, the owner of a firm that contracts with people to stand on the corners, got a citation from Scottsdale for violating the ordinance.
Torgeson said he believes the citation is unconstitutional. But he said a city attorney scoffed at that claim and told him it would take him too much time and money to challenge the ordinance in court.
So Torgeson, owner of Jet Media Productions and Streetwalkers.com, is taking a shortcut: He has persuaded his state representative to sponsor legislation that essentially would overrule the Scottsdale ordinance and probably pre-empt another one the City Council is considering. The legislation, HB2369, already has gained approval of the House of Representatives.
And the bonus for the state, if the measure becomes law, is that it would generate funds to help clean up freeways.
At issue is a 1972 Scottsdale sign ordinance. “The main stated reason in the ordinance for its need is public safety,’’ said city spokesman Patrick Dodds. “People standing on the corner with a sign are potentially going to block the view of traffic.”
And Dodds said the sole purpose of anyone with a sign is to get attention — which he said means distracting drivers.
Dodds acknowledged that is, in fact, the purpose of all signs and billboards. But he said these are different.
“They are in the public right of way,” Dodds said. “So we have a responsibility to make the public rights of way are as safe as possible.”
But Rep. Bob Robson, RChandler, doesn’t see it that way. He calls it a free speech issue.
“I’m not looking for someone to be able to stand in the middle of a major street with a placard,” Robson said. But to some degree, he said, “people should have the opportunity to be opposed to something or in support of something.”
And Robson said he believes that commercial speech deserves similar protection.
“If they’re not obstructing a sidewalk, as the courts have put it, if they’re not hurting anybody, what’s the difference as to the words on a sign?” he said.
Robson’s bill would require all cities to have regulations that permit the posting of temporary signs. That includes not only signs held by people but also those put in the ground.
It also would bar communities from limiting signs to less than 4 feet by 8 feet — which happens to be the size of most political signs — and from limiting the total number of signs.
Dodds doesn’t see this as a free speech issue.
“We know there are different standards that apply to commercial speech as opposed to political or private speech,” he said. So that would allow an individual to be on the sidewalk with a sign calling for the mayor’s recall, or even one proclaiming “the end is near.”