If you think Texas' highways are too beautiful to sully with cheap, unpermitted signs, you're not alone. Under the Highway Beautification Transportation Code, the Texas Department of Transportation has some very strict, un-Texas-like regulations dictating the types of signs people can display. First, for what is allowed: businesses along highways can post signs on their own premises, advertising for themselves.
Seems fair, until you learn what isn't allowed, at least not without a very expensive permitting process: signs displayed on private property that advertise for something other than yourself. That includes the words of the Lord.
Jeanette Golden found out the hard way, after TxDOT informed her in May that the Ten Commandments she posted within her East Texas property off of State Highway 21 was in fact an "outdoor advertisement" and required a permit.
The company that made the sign, Gods 10, had placed its website address on the 6-by--10-foot tablets, and Golden first tried just blacking that part of the sign over. But for TxDOT, that still wasn't good enough.
The sign was still "outdoor advertising," TxDOT said afterward, and required a permit. That required a $125 outdoor advertising fee, an annual $75 renewal fee, a $100 application fee and a $2,500 surety bond. The state probably wouldn't have approved the application anyway, according to emails obtained by the Liberty Institute, the religious freedom legal nonprofit that agreed to represent Golden for free.
"I know of nothing that would change our position that it is on a road that cannot have signage," one of the TxDOT attorneys informed the other employees in an April email.
"I wonder how they'd feel about quotes from the Quaran?," wondered another TxDOT employee, also through email. The Liberty Institute argued that the emails showed TxDOT was violating Golden's First Amendment rights by not allowing any signs on the road. Then, the institute went ahead and posted the emails online.
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Now, TxDOT is suddenly no longer so keen on trying to regulate that Ten Commandments replica. In fact, TxDOT is taking the advice of Golden's attorney and revising its sign rules. "Ms. Golden's sign raised a valid concern in our rules regarding the permitting of private citizens' signs," TxDOT spokesperson Becky Ozuna tells Unfair Park in an email. "For this reason, TxDOT proposed the creation of a new classification of signs to be exempt from permits."
Still, getting a sign on your own land sounds difficult under the possible rule change.:
To be exempt, these signs must be no more than 96 sq. ft. in size; sit on private property of the sign owner; and not be tied to any monetary benefit to anyone (in other words, cannot promote a business).
Liberty Institute attorney Michael Berry is nonetheless encouraged by the official proposal, saying that this would no longer violate anyone's constitutional rights. "We're actually pretty optimistic and pleased with TxDOT's response, assuming it goes through," he says. "The government should not be able to censure or restrict private speech that occurs on private property."