Squelching Speech

Miami, like an adolescent who won't learn from his mistakes, keeps stomping on the First Amendment

The board suggested a proposed photo of a player shooting a basketball toward a hoop might pass muster if the company changed the color scheme and eliminated the player. Outdoor Images adopted the suggestions and presented the new design in October. The architects responded with more suggested changes. Outdoor Images consulted with Nike, which balked at further revisions. The UDRB responded by rejecting the plan in November.

"This case is pretty simple. The city has said you can put up these signs if we like them," says Buttrick. "The fundamental problem with that is that the Constitution does not allow government to censor speech. This ordinance and the way it has been applied has been used to censor speech."

The city passed the law in 1998 to give leaders some control over the large advertising signs proposed for the sides of downtown office buildings, explains architect Clyde Judson, UDRB vice chairman. One of the most famous shows Tim Hardaway's smiling mug, which appears on a building across the street from the new American Airlines Arena on Biscayne Boulevard. "When someone wants to do a mural, it's going to impact all of us," comments Judson, who does not recall Outdoor Images appearances before the board. "We are looking at how it fits into the larger context of the surroundings."

Outdoor Images is hoping the federal courts will reign in the City of Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Outdoor Images is hoping the federal courts will reign in the City of Miami

The law limits the written part of the commercial message to no more than ten percent of the sign's surface area. The UDRB is assigned to determine whether "the image is of graphic or artistic value." Another chapter of the ordinance notes that "consideration for approvals shall be given to the appropriateness of the proposed sign on an existing building." Permits require a $5000 fee.

Buttrick argues the standards are illegal. Numerous courts have ruled that cities must provide "narrow, objective, and definite standards" for signs. "The board and the commission are making subjective decisions with no guidelines to go by," notes John De Leon, president of the local ACLU chapter. "They can regulate the size of the mural or the size of the words. They can't regulate the content."


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