In an effort to curb visual clutter and reduce litter, Chicago’s sign ordinance has, since 2007, prohibited posting “commercial advertising material” on city-owned property. No longer, however. Writing recently, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois struck down that ban as unconstitutionally vague.

The ordinance’s challenger, RCP Productions, leveled two contentions, and while only one was convincing, that was enough to sink the ban. RCP first argued that the sign ordinance unconstitutionally restricted commercial speech—a high bar to clear, and RCP fell short. Chicago, the court concluded, had supplied ample reason to believe that commercial advertising accounted for the vast majority of signage and litter clogging the city’s public ways. The city’s ban addressed those bugaboos without blocking other avenues for commercial speech, and thus didn’t raise a constitutional worry. On that front at least.

The challenger’s second argument proved more successful: the court agreed that the term “commercial advertising material” lacked constitutionally required clarity. Was a flyer advertising a $10 lunch event with a federal judge a commercial advertisement? And what about the plaintiff’s own advertisement, promoting a non-profit film screening with a small admission fee? Was that banned as well? The ordinance offered no clear answers, and instead, Chicago officials had suggested multiple readings. That proved fatal. Chicago was not required to provide perfect clarity, the court reasoned, but the term “commercial advertising material” lay at the heart of the sign ordinance’s ban, and the city did not define that critical term. Absent a clear definition, the court worried Chicago could lean on the ordinance’s ambiguity to prohibit disfavored messages. The ordinance therefore fell to RCP’s challenge.

Link to full opinion here: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv11398/319533/93/