Massachusetts residents have the right to display signs in their yards or on their other personal property so long as the signs meet reasonable requirements adopted by local government that relate to public safety. No local ordinance may dictate what type of messages a resident can display on their property without a compelling reason.

This right to free speech is especially strong where the sign is political, such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Impeach Trump,” “Make America Great Again,” “All Are Welcome Here,” or contains a message supporting candidates or ballot initiatives in an election. Residents may display such political or others signs all year round without unnecessary limits from the government.

Below, we answer some common questions that our office receives about this issue. If you feel as though your city or town is infringing on your right to display yard signs, you may print out this open letter penned by ACLU of Massachusetts attorneys and present it to your city or town’s government.

1. Do I have a right to put yard signs on my property?

Q.Do I have a right to put yard signs on my property?
A.

Yes. The U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions protect your right to speak and express yourself at home.

2. What type of limits can the government impose on yard signs on my property?

Q.What type of limits can the government impose on yard signs on my property?
A.

There can be limits on  your right to display yard signs.

“Unlike oral speech, signs take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative uses for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation. It is common ground that governments may regulate the physical characteristics of signs—just as they can, within reasonable bounds and absent censorial purpose, regulate audible expression in its capacity as noise.”1

Municipalities may have reasonable, content-neutral laws that apply to all signs. For instance, a town may require the signs be no larger than certain dimensions and be placed in a manner so as not to impede visibility on the roads by motorists.

Your government may not ban all signs on private property. That would violate our federal and state constitutions by restricting too much speech and limiting a protected form of communication.

 

1. City of Ladue, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994).

3. Can the government ban or limit only signs with political messages?

Q.Can the government ban or limit only signs with political messages?
A.

No. Political speech, and particularly political speech on private property, is entitled to the highest form of protection. Therefore, a government may not, for example, allow “for sale” signs while banning “Climate Change is Real” signs.

In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down a municipal ordinance that did just this; it discriminated between signs based on the message.2 These types of content-based sign ordinances are almost always unconstitutional unless the government can prove their actions were necessary to serve a compelling interest.3

 

2. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, 576 U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2218 (2015)

3. Neighborhood Enterprises, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, 644 F.3d 728, 737-38 (8th Cir. 2011)

4. What are some examples of restrictions on political yard signs that have been found unconstitutional?

Q.What are some examples of restrictions on political yard signs that have been found unconstitutional?
A.

In City of Ladue, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an ordinance prohibiting homeowners from displaying any signs on their property except residence identification signs, for sale signs, and safety hazard warning signs was unconstitutional.

In a case brought by ACLU of Massachusetts, the U.S. District Court prevented the City of Holyoke from enforcing an ordinance, or any future ordinances, restricting lawn signs during certain months of the year.

5. What about public property? Can the government restrict the posting of political signs there?

Q.What about public property? Can the government restrict the posting of political signs there?
A.

The short answer is “it depends.”

For ordinances regulating speech on public property, like parks or public areas between sidewalks and streets, signs may be prohibited or removed if there is a law that applies to all signs regardless of what they say, and if that law is supported by the government’s interest, for instance, in promoting traffic safety or keeping the space visually appealing. However, the general principle is that if a municipality allows some signs in a public area, it must allow all signs in that area.

Stay informed

ACLU of Massachusetts is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National