Sign Litigation: A Brief Analysis of Reed v. Town of Gilbert

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Adam Lovelady

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Temporary yard signs are springing up all around town. Town council wants to reduce the clutter, but also wants to respect the free speech rights of the community. Council is considering new rules that will allow campaign signs during election season, event signs within a day of the event, and ideological signs anytime. It seems like a reasonable balance—allowing the signs but limiting them to a relevant time-frame. Can the town’s regulations distinguish among signs this way?

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision says no. Such distinctions are unconstitutional content-based regulation of speech.

To be clear, every sign ordinance distinguishes among signs. Ordinances commonly distinguish between locations (commercial property, residential property, public property, etc.), between types of signs (free-standing, wall signs, electronic signs, etc.), and between messages on the signs (commercial, safety, political, etc.). Reasonable distinctions concerning location and types of signs remain permissible.

The Reed decision, though, clearly invalidated some distinctions based on the message content of signs, and it will require adjustments to many local ordinances and some state statutes. The decision, with its four separate concurring opinions, also left open several legal questions.

This blog considers the decision of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U.S. __ (2015), and its impact on local sign ordinances.

Context of Free Speech Caselaw

In thinking about the Reed decision it is helpful to recall a few key points about Constitutional protections of free speech and local government sign regulation. This area of the law is complex—far beyond the scope and space of this blog—but some context is helpful in understanding the impact of the new decision.

Content-Neutral Sign Regulations. Some sign regulations concern the form and nature of the sign, not the content of the message. These regulations—called reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions—include regulation of sign size, number, materials, lighting, moving parts, and portability, among other things. These regulations are allowed, provided they are “[1] justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, [2] that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and [3] that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791, 109 S. Ct. 2746, 2753, 105 L. Ed. 2d 661 (1989)). Over the years the courts have allowed a variety of content-neutral sign regulations.

Content-Based Sign Regulations. Some sign regulations, however, restrict the content of the message. The Supreme Court requires that content-based regulation of noncommercial signs must meet strict scrutiny. As phrased in the Reed majority opinion, a regulation is content-based if the rule “applies to a particular [sign] because of the topics discussed or the idea or message expressed” (slip op., at 6). The strict scrutiny standard demands that the local government must show that the regulation is (i) designed to serve a compelling governmental interest and (ii) narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. That is a steep hill to climb, and in practice few, if any, regulations survive strict scrutiny review.

It is worth noting that commercial speech is subject to yet another test—a version of intermediate scrutiny outlined in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York, 447 U.S. 557 (1987). That test is described in David Owens’ blog on Offensive Signs, and as discussed below, the impact of the Reed decision on the Central Hudson test is unclear.

Case Summary

The Town of Gilbert, Arizona, had a sign code requiring permits for signs, but outlining a variety of exemptions. The Reed decision focused on the exemptions for three types of signs: Political Signs, Temporary Directional Signs, and Ideological Signs. Under the local code, Political Signs were signs designed to influence the outcome of an election; they could be up to 32 square feet and displayed during political season. Temporary Directional Signs were defined to include signs that direct the public to a church or other qualifying event; they could be up to six square feet and could be displayed 12 hours before and 1 hour after the qualifying event. Ideological signs were defined to be signs that communicate a noncommercial message that didn’t fit into some other category; they could be up to 20 square feet.

A local church—after being cited for violation of the rules for Temporary Directional Signs—challenged the sign code as abridging their freedom of speech. The Town argued (and the lower courts found) that its regulations were content-neutral. The distinctions among types of signs, they said, were based on objective factors not the expressive content of the sign. The distinctions did not favor nor censor a particular viewpoint or philosophy. And, the justification for the regulation was unrelated to the content of the sign.

Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, disagreed. He found that the distinctions were plainly content-based and thus subject to strict scrutiny. The distinctions—between Political Signs, Temporary Directional Signs, and Ideological Signs—“depende[ed] entirely on the communicative content of the sign” (slip op., at 7). “Regulation targeted at specific subject matter is content based even if it does not discriminate among viewpoints with that subject matter” (12). And, “an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content-based law into one that is content neutral” (9).

In its failed attempt to meet the strict scrutiny standard, the Town offered two governmental interests to support its distinctions: aesthetic appeal and traffic safety. Even if these were considered compelling governmental interests (which the Court assumed without ruling), the Town’s distinctions were not narrowly tailored. Justice Kagan noted in her own opinion (concurring in the judgment only) that the Town’s distinctions did “not pass strict scrutiny, or intermediate scrutiny, or even the laugh test” (slip op., at 6, Kagan, J., concurring in judgment).

Impact of Local Ordinances

So what does this decision mean for local ordinances? In the end, some distinctions among signs clearly are allowed and will withstand judicial review. Some code provisions, though, must be revised. And then, there are the open questions.

The Court was unanimous in judgment: The particular provisions of the Town of Gilbert’s sign code violate Constitutional protections for free speech. The Court was fractured, though, in the opinions, making it harder to discern the full scope of the decision. Justice Thomas offered the majority opinion of the court with five justices joining. Justice Alito offered a concurring opinion to further clarify the impact of Justice Thomas’ opinion. He was joined by Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor. Three justices concurred in judgment only, and they offered two separate opinions to outline their legal reasoning and their concerns with the majority’s reasoning.

So we have a split court. Three joined the majority only; three joined the majority, but also joined an explanatory concurrence; and three disagreed with the majority’s legal reasoning. This three-three-three split, unfortunately, causes even more head-scratching for an already complex topic.

Content-Based Distinctions. In thinking about your sign ordinance, ask this: Does this regulation apply to a particular sign because of the non-commercial content on the sign? If yes, the regulation must meet strict scrutiny under Reed. The government must show that the regulation is designed to serve a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

If your ordinance distinguishes among noncommercial sign types—political v. ideological v. religious—those distinctions are unconstitutional and must be changed.

Justice Thomas did offer some content-based regulations that may survive strict scrutiny if they are narrowly tailored to address public safety. These include warning signs for hazards on private property, signs directing traffic, or street numbers associated with private houses.

 Content-Neutral Distinctions. The several opinions of the court outline some valid distinctions for regulation. In his majority opinion, Justice Thomas noted that local governments still have “ample content-neutral options available to resolve problems with safety and aesthetics” (slip op., at 16). These include regulation of, among other things,

  • size
  • building materials
  • lighting
  • moving parts
  • portability

Moreover, “on public property the Town may go a long way toward entirely forbidding the posting of signs, so long as it does so in an evenhanded, content-neutral manner” (slip op., at 16). A local ordinance or state statute can prohibit all signs in the public right-of-way. But, if signs are allowed, the regulations must not distinguish based on the content of the message. Regulations that allow some, but not all, noncommercial signs run afoul of the Reed decision.

For example, NCGS § 136-32 allows for “political signs” (as narrowly defined) in the public right-of-way of state highways during election season. That statute and similar ordinances will need to be revised to either, prohibit all signs in the right-of-way, or allow compliant signs with any noncommercial message in the right-of-way during election season.

Justice Alito, in his concurring opinion, provided further explanation (although not an exhaustive list) of what distinctions may be valid, content-neutral distinctions. He included:

  • Size (including different sizes for different types of signs)
  • Location, including distinguishing between freestanding signs and attached signs
  • Distinguishing between lighted and unlighted
  • Distinguishing between fixed message and electronic signs
  • Distinguishing between signs on public property and signs on private property
  • Distinguishing between signs on commercial property and signs on residential property
  • Restricting the total number of signs allowed per mile of roadway
  • Distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs*
  • And time restrictions on signs advertising a one-time event*

* These last examples—distinguishing between on-premises/off-premises and restricting signs for one-time events—seem to conflict with the majority opinion in Reed. Here, we get back to the issue of the fractured court and multiple opinions (discussed below).

Open Questions

Content-ish Regulations

Justice Alito’s concurrence (discussed above) listed many regulatory distinctions that are clearly authorized. He listed two distinctions that do not clearly square with the reasoning of the majority opinion. But, if you consider the three justices concurring with Alito plus the three justices concurring in judgment only, there are six justices that took the question of content neutrality with more practical consideration than Justice Thomas’ hard line. Thus, Alito’s opinion may in fact hold the greatest weight of this case. Only time will tell—time and more litigation.

First, Justice Alito listed signs for one-time events. This seems to be precisely what the majority stuck down in this case. It is unclear how a local regulation could structure such regulation without relying on the content of the message itself. But the inclusion on Justice Alito’s list points to some room for defining signs based on function.

And second, Justice Alito listed the distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs. The enforcement officer must read the sign in order to determine if a sign is off-premises or on-premises. As such, these would seem to be facially content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. But, prior Supreme Court caselaw has upheld the on-premise/off-premise distinction and that precedent is not overruled by the majority opinion.

Commercial and Noncommercial Speech. In past decisions the Supreme Court has treated commercial speech to slightly less protection than noncommercial speech. Commercial speech regulation needs to meet a version of intermediate scrutiny, not the strict scrutiny applied to regulation of non-commercial speech (See, generally, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York, 447 U.S. 557 (1987)).

Arguably, the Reed decision opened the door to challenge a sign ordinance that distinguishes between commercial and noncommercial speech. Justice Alito’s concurring opinion noted that distinguishing based on the type of property—commercial or residential—would be valid. Regulating based on the content of the sign—commercial or noncommercial—arguably is undermined by the Reed decision.

Notably, though, the majority in Reed did not overrule its prior decisions. The Reed decision was focused on the Town code’s distinctions among types of noncommercial speech. Presumably the long-held standards for regulation of commercial speech still apply.

Conclusion

In the wake of Reed, some things are clear. Governments still have an array content-neutral regulations to apply to signs. But, content-based distinctions such as the ones in the Town of Gilbert’s code must survive strict scrutiny to stand. Because of mix of opinions from the Court, there are several open questions. We will not know the full scope and meaning of Reed v. Town of Gilbert until the federal courts begin to apply this decision to other sign litigation.

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