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Newton City Council eases rules governing the display of election signs over free speech concerns

Yard signs supporting Black Lives Matter and immigrants are displayed in front of a home on Lowell Avenue in Newton.John Hilliard/Globe staff

Newton’s City Council late last month eased local rules governing the display of “non-commercial” signs -- including election signs and yard sale signs -- over free speech concerns.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller proposed changes for the city’s sign regulations to the City Council in an April memo.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that restrictions on signs expressing non-commercial speech must be quite limited as they are expressions of free speech,” Fuller told councilors.

The changes, approved by the City Council June 21, removed provisions of the city’s sign ordinance that specifically governed when and for how long election signs may be displayed, according to the city. It also eliminated rules pertaining to yard sale or garage sale signs. The changes also abolished a provision prohibiting the use of obscene language on signs.

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However, they must not be illuminated, create a traffic hazard, or hang over a sidewalk.

The City Council also approved an amendment proposed by Ward 7 Councilor Lisle Baker that limits election and yard sale signs to no higher or wider than 3 feet.

Baker’s amendment was approved in a 15 to 8 vote, with city councilors Alicia Bowman, Deborah Crossley, William Humphrey, Andrea Kelley, Joshua Krintzman, Tarik Lucas, Julia Malakie, and Brenda Noel voting in opposition. Ward 8 Councilor Holly Ryan was absent from the vote, according to a record of the vote.

After the amendment was approved, the City Council adopted the sign ordinance changes by a vote of 22 to 1, with Ward 4 Councilor-at-large Lenny Gentile opposing the measure and Ryan absent, according to the vote record.

Previously, the city’s ordinance regarding election signs limited their display to no sooner than 45 days before an election. They had to be removed within a week after the vote. The rules were in effect during the city’s 2021 local election.

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The June City Council decision came after a Newtonville couple were cited by city officials for political signs in their yard last year. The couple sued the city in Middlesex Superior Court in November and argued that the city had infringed on their free speech rights.

At the time, Newton was among about 50 cities and towns in Greater Boston that imposed restrictions on displaying political signs on private property, though officials in several towns said they have eliminated such rules.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.