Thursday, June 18, 2015
Sign Ordinance Violates First Amendment: Court Decides Reed v. Town of Gilbert
A unanimous Court, albeit with separate opinions, concluded that the extensive municipal signage regulations violated the First Amendment in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
Recall from oral arguments that the town's regulations generally required a permit to erect a sign, with nineteen different exemptions including “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to Qualifying Event.” The exemption for these temporary directional signs further specifies that such signs "shall be no greater than 6 feet in height and 6 square feet in area,”and “shall only be displayed up to 12 hours before, during and 1 hour after the qualifying event ends.” Although the challenge involves a church sign, this was largely irrelevant. Instead the content at issue is the sign’s directional nature, if indeed "directions" is a matter of content. In a divided opinion the Ninth Circuit upheld the town regulation as content neutral.
Reversing the Ninth Circuit, Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, concluded that the Sign Code was content-based and did not survive strict scrutiny. The Sign Code provision is content-based because, simply put, to determine if a sign is a "Temporary Directional Sign" one must determine whether the sign "conveys the message of directing the public" to an event. It does not matter, Thomas writes for the Court, that the content may seem neutral:
A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained” in the regulated speech. *** In other words, an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content- based law into one that is content neutral.
Once the Court decided there the regulation was subject to strict scrutiny, there was little doubt that the town would not be able to satisfy the standard. Thomas assumed that the proffered governments interests of aesthetics and traffic safety were compelling, but quickly determined that that the manner in which they were being served was far from narrowly tailored. Instead, the regulations were "hopelessly underinclusive."
The concurring opinions take on the issue raised in oral argument about the constitutionality of any town's attempt to regulate signage. Justice Kagan's concurring opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg and by Breyer (who also has a separate concurring opinion) - - - but not by Justice Alito, who has his own brief concurrence, joined by Kennedy and Sotomayor (who also join the Thomas's opinion for the Court)- - - argues that strict scrutiny is not appropriate for all sign ordinances. Kagan states:
Although the majority insists that applying strict scrutiny to all such ordinances is “essential” to protecting First Amendment freedoms, I find it challenging to understand why that is so. This Court’s decisions articulate two important and related reasons for subjecting content-based speech regulations to the most exacting standard of review. The first is “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.” McCullen v. Coakley. The second is to ensure that the government has not regulated speech “based on hostility—or favoritism— towards the underlying message expressed.” R. A. V. v. St. Paul (1992). Yet the subject-matter exemptions included in many sign ordinances do not implicate those concerns. Allowing residents, say, to install a light bulb over “name and address” signs but no others does not distort the marketplace of ideas. Nor does that different treatment give rise to an inference of impermissible government motive.
She instead argues that the "we may do well to relax our guard so that 'entirely reasonable' laws imperiled by strict scrutiny can survive." But it was evident that even the concurring Justices did not view the Town of Gilbert's signage regulations as entirely reasonable.