SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruled unconstitutional a sign ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona that restricted signs directing readers to the time and location of a local church’s upcoming services. Because the town needlessly imposed more stringent restrictions on such temporary directional signs than it did on political campaign signs or signs with an ideological message, the Court ruled, the regulation violated the First Amendment.

At issue was whether the distinction between campaign signs, ideological signs and temporary directional signs amounts to a distinction on the basis of the sign’s content, generating strict scrutiny from the Court. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals previously said no, that the town’s rule applied to certain categories of sign regardless of the content. The Supreme Court reversed that decision in an opinion written by Justice Thomas.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

[A] speech regulation targeted at specific subject matter is content based even if it does not discriminate among viewpoints within that subject matter. For example, a law banning the use of sound trucks for political speech—and only political speech—would be a content-based regulation, even if it imposed no limits on the political viewpoints that could be expressed. The Town’s Sign Code likewise singles out specific subject matter for differential treatment, even if it does not target viewpoints within that subject matter. Ideological messages are given more favorable treatment than messages concerning a political candidate, which are themselves given more favorable treatment than messages announcing an assembly of like-minded individuals. That is a paradigmatic example of content-based discrimination.

Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg disagreed that the regulation warranted strict scrutiny, but agreed with the outcome of the case. The regulation, Kagan wrote, “does not pass strict scrutiny, or intermediate scrutiny, or even the laugh test.”

You can read the court’s opinion here.