The town of Gilbert’s officials confiscated the Church’s signs for the alleged violation of the Town’s Sign Code, which imposed more stringent restrictions on signs that direct the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group. The Town noted that the Church exceeded the time limits for displaying its temporary directional signs and failed to include the date of the event on the signs. Reed contacted the Sign Code Compliance Department to reach an accommodation but his efforts proved unsuccessful. The petitioners filed a complaint in the U.S District Court in Arizona, arguing that the Code abridged their freedom of speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment.
A government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content under the First and Fourteenth Amendment.
Content-based laws targeting speech based on its communicative content are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.
The town of Gilbert, Arizona, has adopted a comprehensive code governing the manner in which people may display outdoor signs. The Sign Code identifies various categories of signs based on the type of information they display, but imposes more stringent restrictions on signs that direct the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group. The Code, however, exempts three categories of signs; ideological signs, political signs, and temporary directional signs. The petitioners, the church and its pastor, placed temporary signs around the Town to inform the public about its services. The signs typically displayed the Church’s name, time, and location of the upcoming event. They were posted early on Saturday and removed around midday on Sunday.
Does a State Code that imposes restrictions on the size, duration, and location of temporary directional signs violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment?
Yes, the Town’s Sign Code at issue that imposes restrictions on the size, duration, and location of temporary directional signs abridges the freedom of speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The restrictions that apply to any given sign depend entirely upon the communicative content of the sign, which is prohibited by the First Amendment and the Town has failed to prove legitimate government interests for imposing such restrictions.
The Court applies strict scrutiny to facially content-based regulations of speech when there is any “realistic possibility that official suppression of ideas is imminent.” However, when it is realistically not possible to identify them, the Court may relax its standard, which should be the case here. Also, the absence of any sensible basis for the Town’s proposed interests and distinctions on restrictions dooms the Town’s ordinance under even the intermediate scrutiny. Thus, there is no need to decide whether strict scrutiny applies to every sign ordinance at issue.
Because the Town’s Sign Code imposes content-based restrictions on speech, they can be held constitutional only if they survive strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove its legitimate interest in executing the restriction, which must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. The Town’s two alleged interests – to preserve the Town’s aesthetic appeal and traffic safety – cannot survive strict scrutiny, however. Temporary directional signs do not cause greater an eyesore than ideological and political ones. Yet, the Code allows unlimited proliferation of larger ideological and political signs, while not putting the same type restrictions as it does on temporary directional signs.
Moreover, the Town has ample content-neutral alternatives available to resolve problems with safety and aesthetics. Moreover, the States have legitimate interest in identifying hazards and ensuring safety of vehicles and pedestrians and a sign ordinance narrowly tailored to the challenges of protecting their safety well might survive strict scrutiny. However, the signs at issue including political and ideological signs are far removed from those purposes.