Reed, et al. v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona

Sign Code Violates First Amendment Due to Uneven Treatment of Religious Directional Sign
United States Supreme Court, No. 13-502
Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed employed temporary signs placed in the public right of way to announce its Sunday services.  The Church did not have a permanent location, and employed the temporary signs as an economical way to alert the community about the location, date and time of its events.  The Town of Gilbert Sign Code exempted 23 categories of signs from having to obtain a permit, and among those were Temporary Directional Signs, Ideological Signs and Political Signs.   Ideological signs were defined as communicating a non-commercial message and were permitted to be 20 square feet in size without time limits.  Political signs were defined as designed to influence the outcome of an election and were limited to being displayed 60 days before a primary election and 15 days following a general election and were limited to being 16 square feet in size.  Temporary Directional Signs were defined as guiding pedestrians and motorists to a qualifying event sponsored by a religious, charitable, educational or non-profit organization.  Temporary Directional Signs were only permitted 12 hours before the qualifying event and no more than 1 hour afterward and were limited to being no more than 6 square feet in size.  The Town of Gilbert cited the Church for repeated failure to remove its Temporary Directional Signs within the prescribed times.  The Church brought suit against the Town claiming the Sign Code infringed its Freedom of Speech guaranteed under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The US District Court for the District of Arizona and the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit both determined that the Gilbert Sign Code categories were content neutral in that the distinctions between Temporary Directional Signs, Ideological Signs and Political Signs were based on objective factors not founded upon the content of the signs.  These lower courts concluded that since the Gilbert sign code was content neutral a lesser standard of scrutiny applied and therefore found the sign code did not violate the First Amendment.

The US Supreme Court reversed finding that the provisions of the Gilbert Sign Code are content based restrictions that cannot survive strict scrutiny.  The Court reiterated that content based laws that target speech based upon its content are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling governmental interests.  The Court found that the Sign Code was content based due to the fact that Ideological Signs and Political Signs had significantly greater periods of times they could be displayed and were allowed to be larger in size.   Because ideological messages were given more favorable treatment than messages concerning a political candidate, which themselves were given more favorable treatment than a message announcing an assembly of like-minded individuals, the Gilbert Sign Code was found to be content based discrimination that could not survive strict scrutiny.   The governmental interests advance by the Town of Gilbert were deemed insufficient due to the fact that any aesthetic justification foundered on the fact that the Sign Code permitted an unlimited number of Ideological and Political Signs.

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