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Hall set to make changes to sign permitting to protect free speech, define obscenity
Changes come in reaction to Supreme Court ruling
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Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting

What: Vote on amendment to sign ordinance to protect free speech

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville

In other business

The Hall County Board of Commissioners will approve a $60,000 settlement agreement Thursday with Home Development Resources, Inc., for services provided for the county’s Neighborhood Stabilization program, Community Home Investment Program and Community Development Block Grants.

HDRI had helped procure distressed homes and properties for renovation and sale to low-income tenants.

Hall County officials are ready to lift a moratorium on sign permits after making changes to the county’s ordinance to protect political and religious speech.

The changes come after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June upended restrictions on some local government ordinances that ostensibly curtail free speech rights.

The high court ruled that the city government of Gilbert, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, imposed unconstitutional restrictions on temporary signs, including on their size, duration and number, that directed motorists to nearby church services.

Signs with political and ideological messages were granted much greater leeway by the city, specifically in terms of their size.

The church had been cited for violating city code on multiple occasions.

Hall officials said the county ordinance did not run into the same legal trouble, but they chose to make changes and additions to clarify that free speech will not be infringed.

Hall County uses a list of criteria to determine restrictions on local signs because, according to code, when “left completely unregulated, signs can become a threat to public safety as a traffic hazard and detriment to property values and to Hall County’s overall public welfare as an aesthetic nuisance.”

The updated ordinance makes clear that local government will allow the “maximum expression of speech for messages on signs, whether of a commercial or noncommercial nature.”

According to Planning Director Srikanth Yamala, “This specifically addresses political and religious signs, but it is in the text of the ordinance, not to the dimensions or restrictions.”

With this in mind, however, officials have added the definition of what constitutes an obscene sign and what can be prohibited.

“Material is obscene if to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, taken as a whole, it predominantly appeals to the prurient interest, that is, a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex or excretion; the material taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value; and the material depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct …”

The county planning commission has already given its OK to the changes.

Gainesville Planning Manager Matt Tate has said the city may review its sign ordinance this fall when it begins updating the Unified Land Development Code to “make sure it is content-neutral given the latest (Supreme Court) ruling.”

Tate said the city treats all temporary signs the same regardless of its existing use or content.

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