Santa Monica City Hall May Lift Animated Sign Ban For Safety, Schools

Monday, 9 Sep 2013, 9:16:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

Take a look around Santa Monica and you would be hard pressed to find an animated sign along any of the City’s streets. Under City law, such signs are prohibited. At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Santa Monica’s elected panel might  create an exception to the law in order to allow use of animated signs for public safety purposes, schools, and traffic circulation.

Though City Hall and some schools have already used these signs in the past, their respective uses were not legally recognized.

“The proposed ordinance would amend the Sign Code to legalize the use of animated signs for traffic circulation and public safety purposes, a specific type of signage regulation that is supported by First Amendment case law,” City staff stated.” Additionally, staff proposes an amendment that would allow primary and secondary schools to use animated signs for school purposes.”

City Hall had previously used animated signs “to direct traffic and minimize congestion” while schools used them “to apprise the community about school operation and events.”

Santa Monica’s Sign Code had regulated signage within city limits “in order to promote aesthetic and environmental values and protect traffic safety, while allowing ample opportunity for communication.”

First Amendment rights would remain protected under the Sign Code, even with the new ordinance should it be adopted. Under First Amendment law, City Hall is allowed to regulate “the place and manner” of sign-related communication “to avoid visual blight, decrease the risk of accidents caused by distraction and confusion, and preserve the City’s desirability as a place to live, work and visit.”

According to City staff, animated signs are defined as signs with “any visible moving part, flashing or oscillating lights, visible mechanical movement of any description, or other apparent visible movement achieved by any means.”

City staff added the ordinance, if adopted, would amend Santa Monica’s Sign Code to exempt roadway signs “used to protect traffic circulation and public safety from the prohibition against animated signs.”

The proposed ordinance would also apply to Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District campuses.

There is a question of how the proposed ordinance would apply to private schools, as they are not “state entities” and the regulation in front of council members next week might clarify this issue.

One private school has requested uses of an animated sign “to notify the community of school events, the school calendar, and other matters related to their educational mission.”

The proposed ordinance reads: “primary and secondary schools may utilize animated signs on school property for school purposes.”

“Whether private schools should be authorized to use animated signs is mainly a policy question for Council,” City staff stated. “There is some legal risk because creating an exemption for schools communicating school-related information could be seen as regulation based on content. On the other hand, arguably all schools in the community should have similar opportunities.

“And, all schools, both public and private, fulfill vital functions in the City that are crucial to the City’s success and the public welfare. Signage that allows the City’s schools to communicate with the community about their work is good for the schools and is therefore also good for the community,” City staff continued.

Council members will deliberate the ordinance Sept. 10. Should the ordinance receive a majority vote next week, it would return to the council for a second reading two weeks later.

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