Sign Wars

One man fights Scottsdale for the right to twirl signs

Jim Torgeson is just a guy with a sign. Well, a guy with a sign and a crew of 150 other guys with signs who contract to stand in front of car dealerships around the Valley, pimping the wares.

Unfortunately for Torgeson, holding a sign on a street corner in Scottsdale — where there are a lot of dealerships — is a crime. So the small-business owner has taken his cause to the Arizona Legislature and, if he can, he'll take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he says.

Since Torgeson's run-in with the law in January, state lawmakers have been pushing through a bill to mitigate the penalties for sign-twirling. At the same time, Scottsdale's leaders have pushed forward with their sign-ophobia, banning political signage.

Jet Media owner Jim Torgeson is fighting Scottsdale?s sign ordinance.
Tony Blei
Jet Media owner Jim Torgeson is fighting Scottsdale?s sign ordinance.

Scottsdale isn't the only city in metropolitan Phoenix with sign ordinances that regulate advertising on street corners, but its rules are the strictest. In Scottsdale, holding a sign on a street corner is a criminal misdemeanor that can lead to six months in jail, a $5,000 fine and three years probation.

To put that in perspective, a first-time DUI offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor and comes with a smaller fine.

The city says the code is simply a matter of safety and avoiding a roadside nuisance. But Scottsdale is notorious for trying to ban something that mars the city's aesthetics. Either way, Torgeson and others say this is an issue that cuts to the heart of the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. And they're not happy about the latest revision to Scottsdale's code that bars political signs, either.

On March 20, the Scottsdale City Council approved a ban on all temporary signs in the public right of way — prohibiting even political campaign signs, says Scottsdale public affairs officer Pat Dodds. That means that signs on street corners are forbidden, but people can still post on their property.

Bob Grossfeld, a political consultant with offices in Scottsdale, says the effect of the sign ordinance will probably be negligible when it comes to campaigning, though it could result in a spike of pre-recorded phone calls and junk mail solicitations. He adds that if anyone challenges the ordinance, it likely won't stand up in court.

"Have they tried in the past? Yeah. Has it been enforceable? No," he says of the Scottsdale City Council. "This is a gang that can't even stop topless dancing and they want to try and stop political signs?"

The sign codes are not popular with the state Legislature. A bill sponsored by Bob Robson, a Chandler Republican, would prohibit the Scottsdale sign ordinance that nabbed Torgeson and force all Arizona cities to allow sign-walkers, regardless of current city code. The measure passed the House this month and passed the Senate Government Committee last week. The current bill deals only with commercial speech, but Robson says he's also concerned about the recent ban on political signs.

Robson says he sponsored the bill after Torgeson contacted him. Both men argue that commercial free speech, though more restricted than regular free speech, is still protected under the law. Obviously, Torgeson is concerned about his business prospects, but both he and Robson say they worry about the implications of the possible ban on political signage.

"It's alarming Scottsdale is also trying to ban political speech," says Robson. "Holding up a car wash sign could conceivably be a violation. Is that really where we want to go? I think we're headed down a dangerous path."

Torgeson, whose company, Jet Media, employs most of the sign-twirlers in the Valley, says his crews have felt the brunt of Scottsdale's ordinance. Torgeson got his ticket January 20.

According to the police report, a Scottsdale police officer saw two men holding signs and walking down the sidewalk. He contacted their supervisor, who called Torgeson.

"Torgeson said he wanted to resolve the issue once and for all," the reporting officer wrote. "Instead of his employees being cited, he said he would drive to my location to hold the sign so he would be the one to deal with the issue in court."

The city offered Torgeson a plea bargain — a $278 fine and probation — but he rejected it.

"I'm not interested," he says. "I'm not pleading off to a misdemeanor when you are infringing upon my First and 14th Amendment rights. Period. End of story."

Torgeson is awaiting a trial date and says, if found guilty, he will keep appealing. He's asked for an extension on the trial date hoping that if the bill is signed by the governor, Scottsdale will have to drop the charge. He also says he may sue the city in civil court.

"If they're going to push me this hardcore, I have no choice but to sue them civilly," he says.

The problem, Torgeson continues, is Scottsdale's ordinance is designed with aesthetics in mind, without paying attention to the fact that commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment.

The city says it's only looking out for the safety and appearance of the city. Scottsdale says sign-walkers congest sidewalks and distract drivers.

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9 comments
http://www.leasecar.co.uk
http://www.leasecar.co.uk

You have been provided with some very good advice from the comments to go make sure you take note from them.

MikeH
MikeH

Isn't it odd that your being sued by the very same people you claim to be helping? See for yourself at Maricopa.gov - Care to comment on any of these past/present lawsuits? I wonder if New Times knows that you wrote 13K in bad checks to one of your contracted laborers?

Search "james torgeson" or "Jet Media"

http://www.superiorcourt.maric...

Marcus S.
Marcus S.

It is all about 1st amendment rights, as I see it. Also, it's said to come down on Mr. Torgeson because he employs people that you may, or may not like in your neighborhood. I don't care if he wants to hire fat clowns who live with their mommy... It is not his place to discriminate against someone willing to hold a sign when it is 115 degrees. We all ready have laws to take care of "Drug Addicts" etc... By the looks of things, Hollywood is hiring more Drug users than Mr. Torgeson. And they pay better, I'm sure. But, I digress. What makes the United States a country worth fighting for is our Bill Of Rights.

Lance Richards
Lance Richards

I didn't see comment number 2 by "mike m �" before I submitted my earlier posts. If you really do exist, mike m, and I hope you prove me wrong - but I wonder if you really aren't Torgerson in disguise. Comparing my interactions with some of the sign walkers, your response just seems a little too articulate, and a little too much in support of his ideas. I wanted to make one more point -I don't think all sign walkers are criminals, drug addicts, or ne'er do wells. I know there are some honest people out there doing what they need to do to earn a buck, and I commend them. I just have personal knowledge of a specific group that has worked for Torgerson, and I wouldn't want them in my neighborhood or near my family.

Lance B. Richards
Lance B. Richards

CONT'D from above

All in all, if Torgerson wants to continue with his sign walking business, let him do it in a city where the laws allow it. Get the message, Torgerson - go where you're wanted, or at least tolerated. In Scottsdale, you and your business are intolerable. Hopefully other cities will adopt the same attitude.

Lance B. Richards
Lance B. Richards

CONT'D from above

I understand Torgerson has been known to tout the fact that he is doing a community service by employing the unemployable. Drug addicts, level-3 sex offenders, etc. - often tweaked out when they're on the sidewalks interacting with the pedestrians including women and children. Just ask Jim if the name "Dancing" Dave Morgan rings a bell?Another altruistic reason Torgerson gave - that small business may not be able to afford other means of advertising seems, on its face, to have an iota of truth. But, let me see here .... I've never seen any sign walkers performing their guerilla marketing duties for any "pot lots" in the valley. The only car dealerships I've seen advertising with sign walkers are multi-million dollar companies with huge advertising budgets like ABC Nissan, Bill Heard, Power Nissan, Auto Nation, and Tempe Suzuki. Way to support those small businesses, Jim.It�s interesting the way Torgerson has managed to get his name in the spotlight (gotta get that ego fix, you know), but even more interesting the way he has set up his business. Insulating him from potential liability by hiring people who then hire the sign walkers. Should Dancing Dave commit another unspeakable act, its not Torgerson on the hook. If the sign walkers that Torgerson's subcontractors import and dump off in the neighborhoods should assault or rob someone, its the residents who are on the hook. And if one of these people have a heat stroke or gets run over, he's well insulated himself from any liability. What a caring, responsible citizen.

Lance B Richards
Lance B Richards

After reading this article, it seems very clear to me that Torgerson is interested in one thing, and one thing only. The money in his pocket at the end of the day. He has hung his hat on the freedom of speech issue only in an effort to further his own agenda, which is keeping the beautiful city of Scottsdale littered with signs while lining his own pockets.Scottsdale has a right to protect its aesthetics - perhaps more than a right, but a responsibility to the taxpayers who reside there. And Torgerson doesn't only operate in Scottsdale, but spreads his blight throughout other cities in the valley. He has had run-ins in both Chandler and Ahwatukee. It apparently is only Scottsdale that is responsible enough to take on the "pimp" and his "sign ho's".And this isn't only about sign walkers. I've seen car dealership signs stuck on the side of the freeway that stay in one place for weeks, if not months. And let me tell you, I'm sure it was hazardous when somebody had to stop on freeway to get out and plant these signs, and it is most definitely hazardous to drive down the road and be distracted by them.

mike m
mike m

As a man who has held a sign and earned money to pay for rent by prople holding signs I see nothing wrong with it. The first aqmmendment protects it. So does common sense. Does it really hurt anyone like a drunk driver does as mentioned in this article? NO it causes no harm and there is no evidence drivers are distracted. Is there any complaints on record of a Sign Twirrler causing an accident? NO. Is it ugly to promote comerce and provide jobs by having Sign Twirrlers? NO.

The problem lies in the city council who has no ryhme or reason for the "Hitler Like" control of the "appearance" of Scottsdale. I think they have infringed on this mans rights and he should win in court. With no research or investigation of the impact of the unconstitutional law how could they pass it in good conscience. Their motivations should be explored and found out where this unjust law orginated from in the first place. Which donor did they do a favor for this time.......?

Mike Reilly
Mike Reilly

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am a competitor os Jim Torgeson's and I can identify with what he is saying. I have been harassed in towns in the West Valley where the Head Code Enforcement Officer comes out and inspects your sign holders and postings and asks for them to be moved to a certain distance from the sidewalk or curb, then a police officer comes along and tells me it's all wrong it needs to be another foot farther from where the man whose job and responsibility it is, just instructed me to input signs. The sign business can be very competitive and Jim and I have not always agreed on tactics and ideals. However, we would like, at all times, to be law abiding citizens in our business ventures. Morally and ethically the competition can be very intense in our business. Jim and I have solicited one another's customers, in most cases ignorant of the other party's relationship with them. As long as we stay at an arm's distance, do not sabatoge the other's advertising materials, and do not harass the competition's clients, I see no problem in backing Jim on this matter. But given some of his recent activities, I would have to testify, if called into court, that his prowess is not quite as dignified as he might portray.

I wish him luck and success in his legal affairs. I would also suggest he make calls to the various Municipal Code Enforcement Departments, and get literature or instructions prior to accepting contracts or assignments in areas he may be unfamiliar with.It has been a number of years since I have seen a sign promotor force the 1st and 14th amendment on a township or municipal entity over a matter that should have been resolved prior to it's inflation.

Michael Reilly, Arizona Show Manager, Kilowaa, Inc.

 
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