The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a town’s sign regulations must be content-neutral in order to be legal, striking down the rules that had been set up by officials in the town of Gilbert, Arizona, that targeted church signs with more restrictions than signs in other categories.
“The sign code identifies various categories of signs based on the type of information they convey, then subjects each category to different restrictions. One of the categories is ‘Temporary Directional Signs Relating to a Qualifying Event,’ loosely defined as signs directing the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group. The code imposes more stringent restrictions on these signs than it does on signs conveying other messages. We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive,” the opinion said.
The issue was the town demanded church signs be posted only shortly before a “qualifying event” and removed immediately after, allowing very little time for the churches to let the public know of events.
The case was brought by Pastor Clyde Reed of Good News Community Church when his organization was cited for leaving a sign up too long after a meeting. His congregation rents temporary spaces each week for services, and he uses the signs to let people know where the meetings are being held.
The case was fought on his behalf by the Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF spokesman David Cortman said, “Speech discrimination is wrong regardless of whether the government intended to violate the First Amendment or not, and it doesn’t matter if the government thinks its discrimination was well-intended. It’s still government playing favorites, and that’s unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court today found.”
The opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the town forbids any signs without a permit – but then “exempts 23 categories of signs from that requirement.”
Among the categories are “Ideological Signs,” “Political Signs” and “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to a Qualifying Event.”
Those “events” are any “assembly, gathering, activity, or meeting sponsored, arranged, or promoted by a religious, charitable, community service, educational, or other similar non-profit organization.”
Ideological signs can be 20 square feet with no time limits, while political signs could be 16 square feet and be up 60 days before and 15 days after elections.
But, the opinion said, “The code treats temporary directional signs even less favorable than political signs.”
“Temporary direction signs may be no larger than six square feet. They may be placed on private property or on a public right-of-way, but no more than four signs may be placed on a single property at any time. And, they may be displayed no more than 12 hours before the ‘qualifying event’ and no more than 1 hour afterward.”
That means for a 9 a.m. service, a sign could go up no earlier than 9 p.m., and would lose its effectiveness because of minimal traffic during overnight hours.
The church wanted to display times and locations of services, and would use signs to do that. A dozen or more with the name, location and time were posted on Saturdays and then taken down on Sundays.
The town twice cited the church for violating its sign code, specifically for exceeding time limits. Officials even confiscated one of the signs.
The town responded to the pastor’s concerns by promising “no leniency under the code,” and punishment, including the possibility of jail time, for “future violations.”
The district and intermediate appeals courts sided with the city, but Thomas wrote, “The First Amendment … prohibits the enactment of laws ‘abridging the freedom of speech.’”
He continued, “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.”
He said, “The restrictions in the sign code that apply to any given sign … depend entirely on the communicative content of the sign. If a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both signs will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government.”
His conclusion, “The sign code is a content-based regulation of speech.”
In a discussion about the case as it developed, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco explained the real question was whether free speech plaintiffs have to prove the government intentionally discriminated against their speech.
“So what? Well, the problem with requiring proof of discriminatory motive is that motive is notoriously hard to prove. Put simply, if discriminatory intent must be proven a lot more speech will be prohibited,” he explained.
“Make no mistake, not just religious speech but all types of speech would be in serious peril if Gilbert gets its way. … The government isn’t going to voluntarily give the true reason it enacted a law that unlawfully restricts speech. Instead, it’s going to give a lot of other plausible sounding motives to explain away its actions.
“In the end, whether the government’s speech discrimination is intentional or unintentional should not be a reason to allow it to continue. And that is the principal we are fighting to re-establish in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.”