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United States Supreme Court Announces Unanimous Decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert

June 17, 2015

Byandnbsp;Stephen L. Byron,andnbsp;Aimee W. Lane, andandnbsp;Ellen R. Kirtner, Law Clerk

On Thursday, June 18, 2015, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision inandnbsp;Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Inandnbsp;Reed, the court held that a municipal ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona is in violation of the First Amendment. The ordinance allowed for varying restrictions on sign content based on the particular message on the sign. Although the ordinance did not directly regulate the messages on signs, the ordinance was held to be content-based because varying rules were imposed based on a sign’s message.

Good News Community Church challenged the Gilbert ordinance. The church had been cited twice under the ordinance for posting temporary signs which contained information about the time and location of the church’s services. The church posted more signs than were permitted under the ordinance, the signs were posted for a longer time than was permitted under the ordinance, and the signs failed to include the dates of events; all of these conditions violated the town’s sign ordinance.

The town’s ordinance had defined the church’s signs as “temporary directional” signs, which were one of the most tightly regulated types of signs under the ordinance. The ordinance limited the number, location, and length of time these signs could be displayed. The town imposed less stringent restrictions on other types of signs, such as political signs and ideological signs.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which held that the ordinance was content-neutral, and thus constitutional. The Supreme Court held that while the ordinance did not place any limitations on the specific messages written on signs, it did regulate signs based upon the messages that were conveyed. For example: “temporary directional signs” are signs which direct the public to a “qualifying event” (such as a church service), “political signs” are signs “designed to influence the outcome of an election,” and “ideological signs” are signs “communicating a message or ideas.”

The majority opinion of the Court stated that local governments could still regulate signs via content-neutral ordinances to address safety concerns and aesthetics. For example, the town could limit size, building materials, lighting, moving parts, or the location of signs, provided that the limitations apply to all signs equally, and the extent of regulation did not depend upon the message that the sign conveyed.

A concurring opinion noted that the majority opinion, while correctly striking down the Gilbert regulations, had drawn a bright-line rule which would subject many local ordinances to “strict scrutiny,” and that it was unlikely those ordinances would survive that higher standard of review. This outcome would subject numerous reasonable regulations to fatal challenges.

The Court’s decision inandnbsp;Gilbertandnbsp;serves as a reminder that drafting and implementing lawful sign regulations is a difficult task. Communities should revisit their regulations to determine whether the laws on the books will subject them to a constitutional challenge.

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