Flathead County Commissioners are considering amending their zoning code to remove time and date limitations on the display of political yard signs.

We think this is a great move that will bring the county into constitutional compliance by protecting the free speech of county residents.

Current zoning regulations allow political signs of up to 32 square feet to be displayed 30 days prior to an election until one week after the election. County officials correctly note that this runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

“With signage you can regulate size, but you can’t limit the duration because of free speech,” Flathead County planner Erik Mack told the Daily Interlake. “It’s unconstitutional to limit the duration.”

At a recent hearing on the issue, many members of the public spoke in support of the limitations for aesthetic reasons, but county officials said that to keep the time limitations in place would only invite a challenge in court -- one which they would lose.

They point to court decisions in Ohio and Washington State which struck down restrictions on when political signs may be displayed on private property.

In the Ohio case, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled in City of Painesville Building Department v. Dworken & Bernstein Co. that a city ordinance requiring the removal of political signs within 48 after an election was unconstitutional as applied to the posting of such signs on private property.

Residential signs themselves have been declared protected speech by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1994, the Court struck down a Missouri city law prohibiting signs at private residences. Margaret Gilleo erected a sign in her front yard with the words, “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now” and a sign in the second-story window of her home that read, “For Peace in the Gulf.” The city of Ladue said she must take them down.

In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld Gilleo's free speech rights and rejected the city's ordinance, writing that residential yard signs were “a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.”

“Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute." the Court noted in its opinion. "Even for the affluent, the added costs in money or time of taking out a newspaper advertisement, handing out leaflets on the street, or standing in front of one’s house with a handheld sign may make the difference between participating and not participating in some public debate.”

Free speech must trump aesthetics. We applaud Flathead County for protecting the constitutional rights of its citizens.