Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
Closed Expands Expression
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A church in Gilbert, Arizona, objected to town codes that required a permit to display outdoor signs and divided signs into three categories with corresponding size, placement, and timing restrictions for each category. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the city code was a content-based restriction that did not meet the strict scrutiny standard.
The town of Gilbert, Arizona, has a municipal code requiring a permit to display outdoor signs, which are divided into three categories with corresponding size, placement, and timing restrictions. “Ideological Signs” are signs that communicate an idea or message and that do not fall within other categories. Ideological signs have no time or placement restrictions, and may be up to 20 square feet. “Political Signs” are signs intended to influence an election’s outcome, and they are permitted during election season and may be up to 32 square feet. “Temporary Direction Signs” are those that direct the public to a “qualifying event,” such as a church or a nonprofit group meeting. There is a limit of four signs per property at one time. The signs cannot be greater than six square feet. The timing of display for these signs was limited to no more than 12 hours prior to an event and no longer than one hour after.
The Good News Community Church (Church) holds services at various locations in Gilbert. The Church posted signs early on Saturdays indicating the location for the week, and the signs remained up until midday Sunday. After the Church was cited for exceeding the designated time limit and the Church was unable to obtain an accommodation, the Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed (Reed), filed suit claiming a violation of freedom of speech. Reed sought a preliminary injunction which the District Court denied, a decision which the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the categories in the town code were content-neutral and had met the applicable intermediate scrutiny.
Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. Messages targeted based on communicative content are considered content-based. These types of messages are “presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.” This standard is known as strict scrutiny. A government regulation is regulating speech based on content if the law applies to a particular message because of the ideas expressed or topics conferred. Given the categorical division of signs into “ideological,” “political,” and “temporary” based on the sign’s message, Gilbert’s sign code was a content-based restriction on its face. The Court emphasized that the code is a content-based restriction in that its subject matter is being singled out for disparate treatment, even though no viewpoints within that topic are targeted (the code was not an instance of viewpoint discrimination).
In response to the Ninth Circuit’s classification of the sign code as content-neutral, the Court said “an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content-based law into one that is content neutral.” Likewise, the Court had previously rejected the assertion that “discriminatory treatment” only violates the First Amendment if the legislative intent was to suppress particular ideas, and the Court again rejected that argument. Content-based restrictions such as Gilbert’s sign code are evaluated under the strict scrutiny standard. Under this standard, laws “are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.”
Here, Gilbert had not met its burden given that its stated governmental interests for drawing this distinction in the Code were traffic safety and aesthetic appeal. First, the town could not claim to be reducing the “eyesores” created by signage when it limits the size, quantity, and duration of certain types of signs but allows an unlimited quantity of other sign types. Second, Gilbert claimed to be eliminating traffic safety threats with these restrictions, but had not offered any safety-related justification for imposing greater restrictions on some signs than on others. Thus, the town had not met its burden of demonstrating that the sign code was narrowly tailored to advance a compelling government interest. Therefore, in a 9-0 decision, the Court held that the town’s sign code did not meet the strict scrutiny standard, reversing the Ninth Circuit’s judgment. The Court remanded the case.
Alito, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., each wrote separate but concurring opinions, which some of the other Justices joined.
 Slip op. at p. 6.
 Slip op. at p. 9.
 Slip op. at p. 6.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
While limiting the amount of permissible regulations for speech on signs, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that content-based restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny, and such restrictions must be narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests to be constitutional. By placing a high burden on the government to control the speech on signs based on content, expression is expanded.
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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
United States Supreme Court decisions are binding, mandatory authority upon all U.S. jurisdictions.
Contains amicus briefs from several parties including the Christian Legal Society, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Family Research Council.
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