Brief Fact Summary. An ordinance of the Petitioner, City of Ladue (Petitioner), bans all residential signs, but those falling within one of ten exceptions, claiming that the principle purpose of the ordinance is to minimize the visual clutter associated with such signs. The Respondent, Margaret P. Gilleo (Respondent), filed this action, alleging that the ordinance violated her right to free speech. The District Court found the ordinance unconstitutional and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. It is unconstitutional to prohibit property owners from displaying political signs at their residences.
An ordinance of the Petitioner prohibits homeowners from displaying any signs on their property except “residence identification” signs, “for sale” signs, and signs warning of safety hazards. The Respondent owns a single-family home and placed on her front lawn a sign printed with the words “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now.” After the Respondent’s sign disappeared and a subsequent one was knocked down, she reported the incidents to the police. The Respondent was informed that the signs were prohibited and the City Council denied her petition for a variance. The Respondent then filed an action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging Petitioner’s sign ordinance violated her First Amendment constitutional right of free speech. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance and the Respondent then placed a sign in the second story window of her home stating “For Peace in the Gulf.” The Petitioner responded to the injunction by r
epealing its ordinance and enacting another one containing a general prohibition of “signs” and defining the term broadly. The new ordinance included a prohibition of window signs. The Respondent amended her complaint to challenge the new ordinance and the District Court held the ordinance unconstitutional as a “content-based” regulation. The Court of Appeals affirmed concluding that Petitioner’s interests in enacting its ordinance were not sufficiently compelling to support a “content-based” restriction.
Issue. Is the Petitioner’s ordinance a “content-based” regulation which violates a resident’s First Amendment constitutional right to free speech?
Held. Yes. The Court of Appeals is affirmed. Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) delivered the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court). It is unconstitutional to prohibit property owners from displaying political signs at their residences. The Petitioner has almost completely foreclosed a means of expression through the use of political, religious or personal messages.
Concurrence. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor) filed a concurring opinion. There is a very strong presumption that content discrimination in regulations of the speech of private citizens on private property or in a traditional public forum is impermissible.
Discussion. Points of Law - for Law School Success
Where suppression of speech suggests an attempt to give one side of a debatable public question an advantage in expressing its views to the people, the First Amendment is plainly offended. View Full Point of Law
The ordinance violates a Ladue resident’s First Amendment right to free speech. The Petitioner’s principle interest in minimizing the visual clutter associated with signs is valid, but not compelling. A resident’s self-interest in maintaining property values vastly lowers the danger of visual clutter that concerns the city. Although prohibitions foreclosing entire media may be free of content or viewpoint discrimination, they eliminate a common means of speaking and ultimately suppress too much speech. The Petitioner argues that there are alternative channels for communication such as letters, handbills, flyers and newspaper advertisements. However, these are not adequate substitutes for the important medium of speech that has been closed off. A respect for individual liberty in the home has always been a part of our culture. Displaying a sign from one’s own residence often carries a distinct message from placing a sign elsewhere or by conveying the message through other
means. Furthermore, residential signs may be more cost-effective for the speaker.