Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015).
A sign code is unconstitutional where it regulates signs based on their content, regardless of whether the sign code favors one speaker over another.
Petitioner operated a church that erected temporary signs inviting the public to join in the services. The Town’s Zoning Officer issued Petitioner a citation because the signs were noncompliant with the Towns’ Sign Ordinance. Petitioner filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction and arguing the Sign Ordinance was unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it regulated various types of speech in different ways. For example, temporary directional signs like those used by Applicant were permitted only during certain hours on either side of the relevant event and were limited in size, while other signs such as ideological signs could be much larger and had no placement or time restrictions, and political signs similarly could be much larger. Appellant argued the regulations were content-based, as opposed to content-neutral, and that they failed the relevant strict scrutiny standard that required the City to prove the regulations furthered a compelling interest and that they are narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. The District Court denied the request and the 9th Circuit affirmed, holding that the regulations were content neutral and that the Sign Code satisfied the lower standard of intermediate scrutiny.
The U.S. Supreme Court held the Sign Code was content-based on its face because it regulated sign categories based on the sign messages. The applicable restrictions were tied directly to the signs communicative content. The Court held it was irrelevant that the Sign Code did not regulate based on the actual ideas conveyed (e.g., pro-life vs. pro-choice); what was relevant was that it regulated based the general content (e.g., signs regarding abortion, regardless of the side). Moreover, the Court held the Town’s arguments regarding safety and aesthetics lacked merit because it did not require other sign categories to comply with the same standards as the temporary directional signs. As a result, the Sign Code was unconstitutional.
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