Do phone numbers fall under the First Amendment?
A proposal to allow Northport businesses to post phone numbers, email addresses or hours of operations on their exterior signs has sparked a debate over whether the village is violating the Constitution by restricting the posting of such information under its zoning code.
The trustees held a June 5 public hearing on amending the existing code on exterior signs, which limits the sign text to the business name and function.
“The inclusion of telephone numbers on exterior signage is prohibited,” according the village code — but window signage is permitted to post such information.
The proposed new law would allow phone numbers, websites and hours of operations to be included on exterior signs for businesses.
At the board meeting, village trustee Tom Kehoe questioned if the current code violates the First Amendment by limiting free speech.
Gary Blake, chairman of the village’s Architectural and Historic Review Board, told the board that the code passes constitutional muster by citing a 2005 Supreme Court case where municipalities could regulate “signs in a way that fully protects public safety and serves legitimate esthetic objectives,” according to Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion.
In a phone interview, village attorney Stuart Besen said the existing code does not seem to interfere with the First Amendment.
“There are different levels of freedom of speech. Political speech is protected at a greater level than commercial speech,” Besen said. “From a completely legal standpoint, if a municipality prohibits something that’s commercial on a sign and they cite safety issues and traffic issues, it makes it more permissible — as long as you’re not regulating content.”
Blake argued that the existing code protects public safety by allowing drivers to focus on the road instead of trying to read busy signage. Motorists “stopping to write down a number is a hazard,” Blake said at the meeting. “To add all that clutter to a sign, it’s definitely going to be a distraction.”
“I would love to have a phone number on my sign,” said resident Joe Sabia, who runs an automotive repair shop in the village, at the meeting. “It’s an antiquated law.”
The code’s proponents say the main reason to keep the restriction is aesthetic. Blake said the sign code keeps the village’s downtown district looking “a little bit more mellow, a little more country,” compared with commercial areas in the rest of Huntington which he called “monstrosities.”
“We have to keep a semblance of being neat,” Blake added.
After the trustees asked for more time to research the law, the hearing was adjourned until the board’s July 17 meeting. “We’re trying to do our due diligence,” said Mayor Damon McMullen in a phone interview. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re following the Constitution.”
Proposed change to Northport sign code:
“Sign text permitted may include identification of the business name and function, telephone number, E-mail address and hours of operation. This includes both exterior signs and interior window signs.”