A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling put an end to nearly eight years of litigation surrounding a free speech dispute that began in a small Arizona town. While the decision directly impacts Gilbert, Arizona, and the local Good News Community Church, the ruling has a broader impact on the government’s inability to restrict speech based on the content of the message.
In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, pastor Clyde Reed claimed that the city’s sign code regulating the placement of temporary signs was unconstitutional because it restricted the size, content and exposure of signs based on their content. The regulations distinguished between three types of signs: 1) ideological signs that communicate “a message or ideas” could be up to 20 square feet and be displayed without time limits; 2) political signs that were “designed to influence the outcome of an election” could be up to 32 square feet but could only be displayed during an election season; and 3) “temporary directional signs,” which direct the public to a church or other “qualifying event,” were limited to six square feet, could only be on a single property at any time, only four such signs were allowed in the city, and such signs could only be displayed 12 hours before and 1 hour after the “qualifying event.”
Signs for the Good News Community Church were classified as “event” signage, thus were more limited than any other kind of signage. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Reed and his congregation, finding that the law was content-based and did not further a compelling interest.
The Court concluded that despite the town’s concerns of aesthetic appeal and traffic safety, “[t]he Town cannot claim that placing strict limits on temporary directional signs is necessary to beautify the Town while at the same time allowing unlimited numbers of other types of signs that create the same problem.” Although Gilbert’s intention may have been good, its restrictions placed differing values on messaging, thus were unconstitutional.
The same reasoning articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court applies to political signs, or on any restrictions placed on a sign or other communication based on the content of a sign or other communication. Every election season, the proliferation of political signs garners numerous complaints around the country. States and cities certainly have recourse to address these complaints, but must be careful to do so in a neutral manner.