Brief Fact Summary.
Pastor Clyde Reed put up signs around time indicating the time of his upcoming church services in the town of Gilbert, Arizona. The town had laws regulating the content of signs, and Pastor Reed’s church was cited for violating these laws. Pastor Reed sued, challenging these ordinances on First Amendment grounds.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
When an ordinance discriminates on the basis of content, it is subject to strict scrutiny review.
Laws that are content neutral are instead subject to lesser scrutiny.View Full Point of Law
In Arizona, the town of Gilbert’s ordinance imposed far more restrictions on “Temporary Directional Signs Related to a Qualifying Event” than on “Ideological Signs” or “Political Signs.” The temporary directional signs could be no more than 6 square feet and could be displayed only 12 hours before and one hour after the qualifying event.
Pastor Clyde Reed of the Good News Community Church posted signs indicating the times of church services, which were classified as “Temporary Directional Signs Related to a Qualifying Event.” The church did not own its own building, and as such, met at elementary schools and other locations around town. The church also placed 15-20 temporary signs around the town, displaying the Church’s name along with the time and location of the upcoming service. The town’s sign code compliance manager cited the Church for violating the sign code – once because the Church exceeded the time limits for displaying its signs, and another time for failing to include the date of the event on the signs.
Does an ordinance restricting the size, number, duration, and location of temporary directional signs violate the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment?
Yes, such an ordinance violates the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment. Judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
This decision does not preclude towns from continuing to regulate signs, but it does stop them from restricting them in an unconstitutional manner.
Content discrimination helps courts to identify unconstitutional suppression of expression. However, it cannot and should not always trigger strict scrutiny.
Constantly using strict scrutiny to judge government-regulated communication is too restrictive and would water down the meaning of strict scrutiny. The risk that the government will limit the public’s ability to debate ideas with these regulations is very low and does not warrant strict scrutiny.
Under the First Amendment, a government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content. Content-based laws–those that target 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.
Government regulation of speech is content-based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea expressed. The town of Gilbert’s laws regulating signs are content-based because it defines “Temporary Directional Signs” on the basis of whether a sign conveys the message of directing the public to church or some other “qualifying event.” It defines “Political Signs” based on whether a sign’s message is designed to influence the outcome of an election. And it defines “Ideological Signs” based on whether a sign communicates a message or ideas that do not fit within the regulation’s other categories. It then subjects each of these categories to different restrictions.
Because the regulations are content-based, the applicable standard is strict scrutiny. Because the town of Gilbert has no compelling interest in adding restrictions to only a certain type of sign, it cannot survive strict scrutiny review. Thus, it is unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment.