You may have missed this in the news; probably because there was almost no news coverage of it. In Reed v. the Town of Gilbert, the United States Supreme Court declared a municipal sign ordinance unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. By way of background, in case you’re thinking the “town” of Gilbert is some small out of the way place, it is basically suburban Phoenix—it has a population of over 200,000, and one of the highest median incomes of any municipality in Arizona.
Also by way of background, for those of you who have never read the First Amendment, here’s your chance: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This language has been widely litigated and ended up in many, many Supreme Court cases. In this case, the Supreme Court held unanimously that Gilbert’s ordinance, which has different rules and exceptions for certain categories of signs, violates the First Amendment. Specifically in this case, Gilbert’s Sign Code had restrictions on temporary directional signs that were not applicable to political signs and ideological signs. A small church in Gilbert would put up signs giving people directions to its Sunday service. The church had no permanent building, and so services would often be in different locations from week to week. In Gilbert, a person could put a politician’s campaign sign up for longer periods than a person could put up a directional sign. The Supreme Court said that this violated the First Amendment.
When it comes to local municipal sign ordinances, the general rule is that sign codes should be content-neutral. How that gets interpreted by courts is complicated. One very rigid test is if you must read the sign in order to tell whether it complies with your sign law, that sign law is content-based. However, that rigid test is not “black letter law” – there are a number of exceptions to this kind of strict interpretation; for example, distinctions tied to obscenity, defamation, libel and slander. A classic example is that your right to free speech does not give you the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, there is a previous Supreme Court decision allowing a distinction between commercial and non-commercial speech. Of course, one does need to read the sign to know if it is commercial, or slander, etc.
In a complete reversal on what has been traditionally understood regarding exceptions for political speech (primarily election campaign signs), content-based exceptions to prohibitions, or variations in treatment of signs, can invalidate the prohibition itself. For example, I suspect many local sign ordinances contain an exception allowing or favoring political signs. That language may invalidate an ordinance.
Local governments should have their sign ordinance reviewed by their municipal attorney.