In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the Salt Lake City-based religious organization Summum cannot compel Pleasant Grove City, Utah, to erect a granite monument displaying its religious tenets in a city park. Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (Feb. 25, 2009), Slip Op. No. 07-665, 555 U.S. ____ (Alito, J.). The Court reached this result even though Pleasant Grove City historically allowed other religious monuments to be erected in its Pioneer Park, including a granite monument of the Ten Commandments that was roughly the same size and appearance as the proposed Summum monument.
The Court's analysis rested on the proper characterization of the forum at issue. Summum argued that a municipal park is a traditional public forum in which speech can be regulated only when the requirements of strict scrutiny are met. Pleasant Grove City argued that the appropriate forum is not the park as a whole, but rather the placement of permanent monuments within a public park, which is properly viewed as government speech and not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
In finding for Pleasant Grove City, the Court relied on the principle that the government "is entitled to say what it wishes," so long as its speech does not run afoul of other protections, notably the Establishment Clause. Here, the monuments in Pleasant Grove City's park remained government speech?not First Amendment-protected private speech of their donors?because the city "effectively controlled" the existing monuments and retained "final approval authority" over their placement.
In dicta, the Court clarified that, while the city controlled the monuments and the overall message, it did not endorse any particular one to create an Establishment Clause violation. The Court also distinguished placement of permanent monuments from previous cases in which transitory speech and other forms of expression in public parks have been protected under strict scrutiny. In doing so, the Court focused on the large number of transitory speakers a public park can accommodate, compared with the limited space available for permanent monuments on government land.
The Court's decision overturns the ruling of a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which had ruled in favor of Summum and ordered Pleasant Grove City to immediately erect the Summum monument on the basis that a park is a traditional public forum and the city's exclusion of it failed strict scrutiny review.