18 June 2015

Law in Plain English: Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogReed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona

Argument: TBD (Aud.)

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Background: Good News Community Church placed several signs around the area of its church announcing the time and location of its services. The Town of Gilbert, Arizona notified the Church that its signs were violating Gilbert's sign ordinance because the signs were displayed outside the statutorily-limited time period. The ordinance required that signs could not be erected without a permit, but that three categories of signs were exempted from the permit requirement: 1) temporary directional signs relating to qualifying events (no greater than six feet in height and six square feet in area; only to be displayed for 12 hours before and one hour after an event; not placed in the public right-of-way); 2) political signs (up to 32 square feet in size; erected at any time, but taken down within ten days after an election; may be placed in the public right­-of-way); and 3) ideological signs (not limited in time or number; may be placed in the public right-of-way). The district court found that the ordinance was not a content-based regulation; was a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction; and (on remand) did not favor some noncommercial speech over other commercial speech. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether the Town of Gilbert's mere assertion that its sign code lacks a discriminatory motive renders its facially content-based sign code content-neutral and justifies the code's differential treatment of petitioners' religious signs.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sign Code’s provisions are content-based regulations of speech that do not survive strict scrutiny. Because content-based laws target speech based on its communicative content, they are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. The Sign Code’s content-based restrictions do not survive strict scrutiny because the Town has not demonstrated that the Code’s differentiation between temporary directional signs and other types of signs furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to that end.

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