Sign Regulations and Content Discrimination

Gilbert Arizona’s quirky sign laws which creates different categories of signs, with different privileges, is unconstitutional ruled the United States Supreme Court in the summer of 2015.

A unanimous Supreme Court found the Town of Gilbert’s (Town) sign laws unconstitutionally restricting Good News Community Church’s (Church) right to free speech. The Court thoroughly explained what constitutes content based restrictions on speech, and debunked each of the court of appeals arguments in reversing its decision.

The Town, generally prohibits signs in the city, but it makes exceptions for certain classes of signs. Three classes of signs that are excepted from the prohibition are: ideological signs, political signs, and temporary directional signs. The Town’s sign code treats ideological signs most favorably, allowing the signs to be the largest in area (height by width), and placed without time limits. Political signs are smaller in size, and only permitted for 60 days at a time. Temporary directional signs have the most restrictions out of the three classes of signs, being the smallest and allowed only for twelve hours before the event and one hour after the event.

The Church does not have a permanent place of worship. Thus, it uses signs 15-20 signs around town to notify people about their services. The Church has been cited by the Town for exceeding the time limits of temporary directional signs. The Church tried to make accommodations with the Town, but the Town would not be lenient, and promised to enforce the code in the future.

Finding the Sign Code “imposes content-based restrictions on speech,” the Court analyzed the law using a strict scrutiny standard. The Town did not meet the strict scrutiny standard because it did not show the law furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to target the minimum amount of speech possible.

In evaluating the law, the Court took a two step approach.

First, it looked to determine if the law is content-neutral or not. Justice Thomas in writing for the majority used the following illustration to describe whether a policy is content neutral or not:

If a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both
signs will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government.1
The restrictions of the sign code in the illustration above depend on the “communicative content” to enforce the regulation.2

 

Finding the law was content based, the Town had to satisfy strict scrutiny. Strict scrutiny “requires the Government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”3 The Town argues the signs affect governmental interest of: aesthetic appeal and traffic safety. The Court doesn’t even analyze to determine if these are compelling governmental interests, it just assumes for argument sake that they are.

The Court does not find that the law is narrowly tailored to protect free speech. “The Town cannot claim that placing strict limits on temporary directional signs is necessary to beautify the Town while at the same time allowing unlimited numbers of other types of signs that create the same problem.”4

Joseph Thomas

Joseph Thomas

Joseph Thomas is a licensed attorney in Washington State whose practice includes constitutional and civil rights law.
Joseph Thomas

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  1. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ____, ____ (2015) (slip op. at 7).
  2. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ____, ____ (2015) (slip op. at 7).
  3. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ____, ____ (2015) (slip op. at 14).
  4. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ____, ____ (2015) (slip op. at 15).

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Joseph Thomas

Joseph Thomas is a licensed attorney in Washington State whose practice includes constitutional and civil rights law.

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