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.
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. 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.