Noncommercial Sign Regulation Case Headed to the U.S. Supreme Court

By Stephen L. Byron, Aimee W. Laneand Kalynne Proctor, Law Clerk

On July 1, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review First Amendment challenges brought by Good News Community Church, alleging that a sign ordinance in the town of Gilbert, Arizona violates the right to free speech. Members of the church displayed 17 signs in the area surrounding its place of worship, announcing the time and location of its services and inviting the community to attend. Following the placement of these signs, the church was informed by the town that it was in violation of the sign ordinance. The ordinance allows only 4 such signs, classified as Temporary Directional Signs, to be placed on the church's property for up to 12 hours on the day services are held. The ordinance further restricted such signs by limiting their size and placement throughout the town.

The town imposes less restrictive regulations on other types of signs. Specifically, political signs can be larger in size, displayed for months on end, and are not limited in number. Ideological signs can be even larger in size, with no limitation on location or number of signs displayed, nor any limitations on how long the signs can be displayed.

The procedural history of this case is lengthy and complex. In a prior decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that the sign restrictions, including the distinctions among them, were content-neutral. Accepting this former decision as law of the case, the Court of Appeals ultimately held that the town's different treatment of types of noncommercial temporary signs based on size, duration, and location is constitutional; the regulations are not content-based, and the restrictions are tailored to serve significant governmental interests, thus satisfying First Amendment requirements for content-neutral restrictions on speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in this case could help clarify distinctions between "content-based" and "content-neutral" ordinances, an important factor under First Amendment analysis, and therefore may have a direct and significant impact on local governments nationwide. We will update you on any new development in this case that might impact your community.

If you have any questions regarding the issues addressed in this Client Alert, please contact a member of Walter | Haverfield's Public Law Services group.