In the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, Good News Community Church filed suit against the town alleging its freedom of speech was violated when the town cited the church for exceeding the time limits for displaying temporary directional signs and for failing to include an event date on the signs. The United States Supreme Court ultimately determined that the church's freedom of speech had been violated because the sign regulations amounted to content-based restrictions of speech that did not withstand strict scrutiny.
Summary and Analysis:
The town's comprehensive code generally requires a permit to display an outdoor sign, but provides for 23 categories that are exempted from this permitting requirement, including "ideological signs" "political signs" and "temporary directional signs." Temporary directional signs have greater restrictions than the other three categories. This includes a restriction against placing more than four on a property, size limitations, and the requirement that the sign not be displayed more than 12 hours before and one hour after the event. The church, which holds services in various locations in and near town, posts signs early each Saturday and does not remove them until midday on Sunday.
The Court began its analysis by determining whether the town's code provisions regarding signs constituted content-based regulations. Noting that the various sign categories are based on the message included on the sign ("communicative content"), and that those different categories are then subjected to different restrictions, the Court determined that the regulation is content-based on its face. As such, the regulation is subject to strict scrutiny, meaning the town must demonstrate that the code's differentiation between temporary directional signs and other types of signs 1) furthers a compelling governmental interest and 2) is narrowly tailored to that end.
Assuming beautification and public safety as the two governmental interests being promoted, and assuming that such interests are compelling, the Court notes that the regulations would still fail strict scrutiny because the town could make no showing that the directional signs were distinguishable from the other signs in terms of impact on the town's beauty or safety. That being the case, the town was incapable of showing the restrictions in question were narrowly tailored to the promotion of beautification or public safety.
Fortunately, the Court saw fit to provide examples of how the town might craft content-neutral regulations going forward. Regarding safety and aesthetics, the town could, among other options, put restrictions in place focused solely on the size, building materials, lighting, moving parts and portability of the signs. The town could also forbid postings on public property, as long as it does so in an evenhanded and content-neutral manner.