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Old signs of times are free speech, so hard to remove

When I drive around town, both here and other area cities, I constantly see signs for businesses that are no longer in business. It seems like that is just adding to the advertising clutter and eyesore of too many of our communities. What's the law on leaving up old, outdated signs, and who's responsible for making sure they are removed once the business is gone?

— Don J., Medford

We don't think you're going to like this answer much, Don, so maybe you'd best go outside and admire the many majestic trees of our fair city before you come back in and read about the clutter ...

OK, feeling calm now, Don? The answer is that the city does not require that those signs be removed unless they no longer contain "legible visual images or text."

In other words, if you can still read what's on the sign, it can stay.

This ordinance is a relatively recent development. So recent, in fact, that the law changed between the time you sent this question and the time we went out to get an answer.

Before Dec. 1, the law defined an abandoned sign as a "sign that pertains to a time, event or purpose which no longer applies." In other words, if a business no longer existed, or the event was over, a remaining sign would have been considered abandoned.

There's a reason for the change, and it has to do with — we're not making this up — First Amendment free speech rights.

Over the centuries, the phrase "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ..." has come to mean that governments are greatly restricted in controlling any forms of speech. That includes signs, although it's hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers were thinking about signs advertising Kim's or Circuit City when they wrote the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, Medford and many other cities will not step in to control the content of a sign, even if the content is the name of a defunct business. However, if the sign is no longer legible — and thus no longer contains content — the sign is supposed to be removed within 12 months "following the date of abandonment."

Don, if you see an abandoned sign that is no longer legible — which would suggest it's been abandoned for more than 12 months — you can call the city's code enforcement office to report it, and they will contact the property owner.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.