This page provides a general overview of sign regulation in Washington State, including examples of comprehensive sign codes and temporary sign regulation approaches.
For a list of key court decisions on this topic, see Sign Regulation Court Decisions.
Signs are a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Local governments must therefore be careful in drafting and enforcing sign regulations so as to not improperly infringe on a person’s right to free expression. Although there have been several important sign regulation court decisions over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Gilbert (2015), prompted the need for most local governments to significantly redraft their sign codes. In that decision, the Court deemed the typical method of regulating signs by content-type (such as political, ideological, directional, etc.) unconstitutional.
In Reed, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a town sign code that treats various categories of signs differently based on the information they convey violates the First Amendment. The town’s sign code defined categories of temporary signs based on their message (e.g., directional, political, or ideological) and then subjected each category to different restrictions—for example: permissible size, number of signs, and duration of display.
The court held that the sign code provisions were content-based regulations of speech that did not survive strict judicial scrutiny because the town did not demonstrate that the code’s differentiation between temporary directional signs (the type of sign at issue in the case) and other types of signs furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to that end.
After Reed, any content-based sign regulation was called into question. However, subsequent court decisions have helped clarify the reach of this decision.
Significantly, in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed Reed by holding that a City of Austin off-premises sign regulation (i.e., regulations that regulate off-premises signs such as billboards differently than on-premises signs) was content-neutral and therefore subject to intermediate scrutiny – a more deferential standard of review to local governments and regulators. See City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising (2022). This was despite having to “read the sign” to regulate it. In overturning the Court of Appeals, the court majority wrote:
The Court of Appeals interpreted Reed to mean that if “[a] reader must ask: who is the speaker and what is the speaker saying” to apply a regulation, then the regulation is automatically content based […] This rule, which holds that a regulation cannot be content neutral if it requires reading the sign at issue, is too extreme an interpretation of this Court’s precedent. Unlike the regulations at issue in Reed, the City’s off-premises distinction requires an examination of speech only in service of drawing neutral, location-based lines. It is agnostic as to content. Thus, absent a content-based purpose or justification, the City’s distinction is content neutral and does not warrant the application of strict scrutiny.
Additionally, appellate courts have held that Reed does not extend to the regulation of commercial signs. See Contest Promotions v. City and County of San Francisco (2017) and the MRSC blog post, Ninth Circuit Holds Reed v. Town of Gilbert Does Not Extend to Commercial Speech (2017). The D.C. Circuit held that a regulation imposing certain durational limits on special event signs was content-neutral, even though one needed to read the sign to determine whether the regulation applied. See Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coal. v. Dist. of Columbia (2017).
For more details, see the MRSC blog posts: Read the Signs: New Ruling Clarifies On-/Off-Premises Sign Regulation (2022) and U.S. Supreme Court Issues Significant Sign Code Decision (2015).
The primary takeaway of the Reed case is that local regulation of non-commercial signs must be content-neutral and that a sign code (or the enforcement of a sign regulation) will be subject to “strict scrutiny” judicial review if it applies different standards based on a sign’s content.
Many jurisdictions in Washington State have redrafted their sign regulations to focus on a sign’s physical and other non-content-based attributes, rather than content-based categories that had been typical in codes, such as whether a sign is political or ideological in nature. Factors considered in a content-neutral “time, place, or manner” approach may include:
- Location, such as commercial vs. residential locations, zoning districts, or placement in public right-of-way, and reasonable on-/off-premises distinctions
- Dimensions, such as size and height
- Type of structure (for example, freestanding signs, monument signs, permanent façade signs, banner signs, and inflatable roof signs)
- Number of signs allowed
- Maximum square footage
- Illuminated or not
- Fixed message signs vs. signs with changing messages (electronic or otherwise)
- Moving parts
- Portability (for example, A-frame or sandwich board signs)
- Condition of sign (abandoned, dilapidated, etc.)
Practice Tip: If your jurisdiction has not updated its sign code following the Reed decision, use caution in enforcing your existing sign regulations – especially against placement of any type of non-commercial signs. We recommend you consult your agency attorney prior to taking enforcement actions.
Below are several examples of comprehensive sign codes regulating a variety of sign types and features (e.g., permanent, temporary, illuminated, digital, memorials, public/governmental, etc.) that were adopted after Reed. Note that MRSC does not attest to their legality, however they do reflect different jurisdictions’ approaches to addressing the decision. Following these examples is a more detailed review of various temporary sign code provisions.
- Bremerton Municipal Code Ch. 20.52
- Covington Municipal Code Ch. 18.55 – See also Ordinance No. 08-2018 (2018)
- Fircrest Municipal Code Ch. 22.26 – See also Resolution No. 17-04 (2017) providing recommendations for approval from the planning commission and Sign Code Update Comparison Table, along with the final Ordinance No. 1598 (2017)
- Gig Harbor Municipal Code Ch. 17.80
- Milton Municipal Code Ch. 17.50 – See also Ordinance No. 1938-18 (2018)
- Port Orchard Municipal Code Ch. 20.132 – See also Ordinance No. 024-17 (2017)
- Rainier Municipal Code Sec. 18.48.130
- Spokane Municipal Code Ch. 17C.240 – See also Ordinance No. C35577 (2018)
- Yakima Municipal Code Ch. 15.08
- Wenatchee Municipal Code Ch. 10.50
The area of sign regulation most impacted by the Reed decision is the regulation of temporary signs—and more specifically, non-commercial temporary signs. This is generally inclusive of political, ideological, temporary event, community, and directional signs.
The Reed decision must be harmonized with Washington State law limiting certain restrictions on placement of political signs. In Collier v. Tacoma (1993), the Washington State Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a 60-day pre-election durational limit on political signs. The same court also held that political signs must be allowed in the parking strip area of the public right-of-way (the area between public streets and public sidewalks) because it is a traditional public forum. Sign regulations should therefore allow all non-commercial temporary signs that would be inclusive of political signs in the same manner. For further information, see this blog post, Regulating Non-Commercial Temporary Signs During Election Season (2020), and the more detailed review of Temporary Signs within Rights-of-Way and on Public Property following the examples below.
Local governments have demonstrated a variety of creative approaches to regulating temporary signs in a way intended to withstand constitutional challenges. Below are some examples highlighting interesting features of the regulations. Note that methods and examples of regulating temporary signs in public rights-of-way and on public property are covered in more detail in the section below on Temporary Signs within Rights-of-Way and on Public Property.
- Wenatchee Municipal Code Sec. 10.50.160
- Expressly states, “The content of temporary signs is not regulated”
- Offers a detailed purpose section (Sec. 10.50.010): “To preserve the right of free speech exercised through the use of signs containing noncommercial messages”
- Provides graphic representation of six different types of temporary signs (e.g., large freestanding, small freestanding, wall banner, street banner, a—frame, etc.), followed by the “time, place, manner” regulations for each type
- Defines “noncommercial signs” and “noncommercial speech signs”
- Includes different standards for certain commercial signs on property associated with activities, such as residential real estate sales, construction, and exterior events
- Oak Harbor Municipal Code Sec. 19.36.080
- Provides graphic representation of 13 types of temporary signs, labeling them as Type A, Type B, etc.
- Offers a matrix showing each sign type and including a short description of how each type is regulated by time, place, and manner (size, materials, installation)
- Includes both quantity and quality standards
- Maple Valley Municipal Code Sec. 18.50.010 – Distinguishes between non-commercial temporary and commercial temporary signs. City continues to regulate differently based on the type of commercial activity or event that the sign is advertising (e.g., real estate, garage/yard sale, special sale, etc.).
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.55.012 – Allows eight square feet of temporary signs per residence without limitation of duration. Allows additional signage, up to 32 square feet (for rigid signs), up to four times per year for 14 consecutive days.
As described above, under the Washington State Constitution, political or campaign signs must be allowed within the parking strip portion of the public right-of-way (a traditional public forum), and there are limitations on the pre-election durational limits local governments may impose on such signs. See Collier v. Tacoma (1993).
After Reed, however, political signs should not be “called out” in a sign code or regulated differently than other non-commercial temporary signs. Therefore, local governments must establish standards for all non-commercial temporary signs that take into account Washington state law regarding political signs.
Temporary signs (including political signs) may be prohibited in many portions of the right-of-way including medians, traffic circles, the roadway itself, sidewalks, and areas that would cause safety concerns. In areas of the right-of-way where temporary signs must be allowed (i.e., parking or planting strip), most codes require the adjacent property owner’s consent to place the sign(s). Note that local governments generally prohibit temporary signs in parking strips adjacent to public property (see next section regarding signs on public property).
Regulations generally allow for removal of abandoned or dilapidated temporary signs in the right-of-way.
Temporary Signs on Public Property
Sign codes will generally prohibit placement of non-public temporary signs on public property (and adjacent rights-of-way), unless permitted pursuant to a special event or other permit (such as a street use permit). RCW 42.17A.555 prohibits the use of public facilities to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure, so placement of temporary political signs on public property could potentially implicate this provision.
Note: This page does not cover the display of hand-held signs, distribution of flyers, etc., on public property.
Below are some examples of how local governments regulate placement of temporary signs in rights-of-way and public property.
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.55.012
- Prohibits temporary signs on public property or in planting strips abutting public property
- Allows temporary signs in planting strip adjacent to private property with owner or occupant consent
- Everett Municipal Code Sec. 19.36.060
- Prohibits temporary signs in rights-of-ways adjacent to public facilities
- Requires abutting owner consent for placement in right-of-way adjacent to private property
- Enumclaw Municipal Code Sec. 19.10.210
- Sets a 60-day duration for temporary signs, except for temporary signs in the city right-of-way, which must be removed no more than 45-days after the November election
- Limits areas of right-of-way where signs are permitted and requires abutting owner consent
- Gig Harbor Municipal Code Sec. 17.80.110 – Temporary signs are allowed in specific areas of right-of-way designated by the planning director and by permit only. Permits are self-issued stickers and must be current or the signs will be subject to removal.
- Yakima Municipal Code Sec. 15.08.110
- Temporary signs are to be promptly removed after the event for which it was intended
- No signs on public property are allowed except as may be authorized through a special event permit
- Edgewood Municipal Code Sec. 18.97.240
- Approval of abutting property owner is recommended, but not required, for placement in right-of-way
- Only staked signs are allowed in right-of-way except as allowed through a street use permit
- MRSC: Blog posts about sign regulation – Articles written by MRSC staff and contributors about specific aspects of sign regulation, including court decisions and legislation. Articles are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent first.
- Rocky Mountain Sign Law Blog – Blog dedicated to sign law which summarizes latest case law and issues of interest
- Sign Research Foundation – Organization dedicated to fulfilling the educational, research and philanthropic purposes of on-premises signage
- Scenic America – National organization whose mission is to safeguard the scenic qualities of America’s roadways, countryside, and communities