Reed v. Town of Gilbert: Can a Town Prohibit Certain Types of Signs?

Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Garage sale sign

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In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Supreme Court considered whether local regulations governing the content of signs in Gilbert, Arizona, violated the First Amendment. The Court found that the sign regulations were content-based restrictions on free speech, and could not survive strict scrutiny.

Fast Facts: Reed v. Town of Gilbert Supreme Court Case

  • Case Argued: January 12, 2015
  • Decision Issued: June 18, 2015
  • Petitioner: Clyde Reed
  • Respondent: Town of Gilbert, Arizona
  • Key Questions: Did the Town of Gilbert's sign code impose content-based regulations that violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments? Did the regulations pass the strict scrutiny test?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan
  • Dissenting: Unanimous decision
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court found that the Town of Gilbert's sign regulations included content-based restrictions on free speech. The restrictions imposed on Clyde Reed and the organization he represented were unconstitutional, as they could not pass the strict scrutiny test. However, the Court warned that strict scrutiny should only be used when there is a risk that officials are suppressing ideas and political debates.

Facts of the Case

In 2005, town officials in Gilbert, Arizona, passed a law to regulate signage in public spaces. In general, the sign code prohibited public signs, but identified 23 exceptions to the prohibitions.

After the sign code went into effect, Gilbert’s sign code compliance manager began citing a local church for violating the code. Good News Community Church was a small congregation without an official place of worship that often met in elementary schools or other public locations around the town.

In order to get the word out about services, members would post 15-20 signs at busy intersections and other locations around town on Saturdays and remove them the following day. The sign code manager cited Good News Community Church twice for their signs. The first infraction was for exceeding the amount of time a sign could be publicly displayed. The second infraction cited the church for the same issue, and noted that no date had been listed on the sign. Officials confiscated one of the signs which the pastor, Clyde Reed, had to pick up in person.

After failing to reach an agreement with town officials, Mr. Reed and the church filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. They alleged that the strict sign code had abridged their freedom of speech, violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

First Amendment Background

Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, states cannot make laws that abridge an individual's freedom of speech. In Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, the Supreme Court interpreted this clause, finding that states and municipal governments could not restrict speech based on "its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content."

This means that if a state or municipal government wants to ban speech based on its content, that ban has to survive a test called "strict scrutiny." The entity has to show that the law is narrowly tailored and serves a compelling state interest.

Constitutional Issue

Did the sign code restrictions qualify as content-based exclusions of free speech? Did the code stand up to strict scrutiny? Did officials in Gilbert Arizona abridge freedom of speech when they enforced the sign code restrictions on church members?

Arguments

The church argued that the its signs were treated differently than other signs based on their content. More specifically, the attorney argued, the town regulated the sign based on the fact that it was directing people to an event rather than communicating a political message or abstract idea. The sign code was a content-based restriction, and therefore must be subjected to strict scrutiny, he argued.

On the other hand, the town argued that the sign code was content-neutral. The town could distinguish between the signs by categorizing them into groups "without reference to the content of the regulated speech.” According to the attorney, the code regulating temporary directional signs could not be considered content-based because the regulation did not favor or suppress viewpoints or ideas. The attorney argued that the code could survive strict scrutiny because the town has a compelling interest in traffic safety and preserving aesthetic appeal.

Majority Opinion

The Supreme Court unanimously found in favor of Reed. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the court focusing on three sign code exceptions:

  1. Ideological signs
  2. Political signs
  3. Temporary directional signs relating to a qualifying event

The sign code exceptions classified signs based on what type of language they displayed, the majority found. A town official would need to read a sign and judge it based on its content in order to decide whether it should be permitted or not. Therefore, the justices argued, parts of the sign code were content-based restrictions on their face.

Justice Thomas wrote:

"A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained” in the regulated speech.”

Aesthetic appeal and traffic safety were not compelling enough interests to support the code. The court found no aesthetic difference between a political sign and a temporary directional sign. Both could be equally damaging to the image of the town, but the town chose to impose harsher limitations on the temporary directional signs. Similarly, political signs are just as threatening to traffic safety as ideological signs. Therefore, the justices opined that the law could not survive strict scrutiny.

The court noted that some of the town’s restrictions on size, material, portability, and lighting have nothing to do with content, as long as they are applied uniformly, and could survive the strict scrutiny test.

Concurring Opinions

Justice Samuel Alito concurred, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy. Justice Alito agreed with the court; however, he cautioned against interpreting all sign codes as content-based restrictions, offering a list of regulations that could be content neutral.

Justice Elena Kagan also wrote a concurrence, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Kagan argued that the Supreme Court should be wary of applying strict scrutiny to all sign regulations. Strict scrutiny should only be used when there is a risk that officials are suppressing ideas and political debates.

Impact

In the aftermath of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, towns across the U.S. reevaluated their sign regulations to ensure that they were content-neutral. Under Reed, content-based restrictions are not unlawful, but are subject to strict scrutiny, meaning that a town must be able to show that the restrictions are narrowly tailored and serve a compelling interest.

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