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Blogs / Government Affairs & Public Policy / Supreme Court’s Sign Case May Require Altering Sign Codes Nationwide

Supreme Court’s Sign Case May Require Altering Sign Codes Nationwide

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert the Supreme Court held unanimously that Gilbert’s Sign Code, which treats various categories of signs differently based on the information they convey, violates the First Amendment. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case arguing that Reed’s argument, if adopted by the Court, will render sign codes unconstitutional nationwide.

Gilbert’s Sign Code treats temporary directional signs less favorably (in terms of size, location, duration, etc.) than political signs and ideological signs.

Content-based laws are only constitutional if they pass strict scrutiny—that is, if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.

While the SLLC argued in its amicus brief that the sign categories in this case are based on function, the Court concluded they are based on content. The various categories draw distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys. So under Gilbert’s sign code: “[i]f a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both signs will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government.”

Gilbert’s Sign Code failed strict scrutiny because its two asserted compelling interests—preserving aesthetic and traffic safety—were “hopelessly underinclusive.” Temporary directional signs are “no greater an eyesore” and pose no greater threat to public safety than ideological or political signs.

Many, if not most communities, like Gilbert, regulate some categories of signs in a way the Supreme Court has defined as content-based in this opinion.  Communities will need to change these ordinances.  Justice Alito, in a concurring opinion, offers a list of rules that he and two other Justices believes would not be content-based. Justice Kagan, in a separate concurring opinion joined by two other Justices, is less optimist about the impact of this ruling on local government: 

As the years go by, courts will discover that thousands of towns have ordinances [that contain subject matter exemptions like historical markers] many of them “entirely reasonable.” And as the challenges to them mount, courts will have to invalidate one after the other. (This Court may soon find itself a veritable Supreme Board of Sign Review.) And courts will strike down those democratically enacted local laws even though no one—certainly not the majority—has ever explained why the vindication of First Amendment values requires that result.

Bill BrintonRogers Towers wrote the SLLC’s brief which was joined by the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the American Planning Association, and Scenic America.

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