City of Ladue v. Gilleo,
512 U.S. 43 (1994)

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No. 92-1856. Argued February 23, 1994-Decided June 13, 1994

An ordinance of petitioner City of Ladue bans all residential signs but those falling within 1 of 10 exemptions, for the principal purpose of minimizing the visual clutter associated with such signs. Respondent Gilleo filed this action, alleging that the ordinance violated her right to free speech by prohibiting her from displaying a sign stating, "For Peace in the Gulf," from her home. The District Court found the ordinance unconstitutional, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the ordinance was a "content based" regulation, and that Ladue's substantial interests in enacting it were not sufficiently compelling to support such a restriction.

Held: The ordinance violates a Ladue resident's right to free speech.


(a) While signs pose distinctive problems and thus are subject to municipalities' police powers, measures regulating them inevitably affect communication itself. Such a regulation may be challenged on the ground that it restricts too little speech because its exemptions discriminate on the basis of signs' messages, or on the ground that it prohibits too much protected speech. For purposes of this case, the validity of Ladue's submission that its ordinance's various exemptions are free of impermissible content or viewpoint discrimination is assumed. Pp.48-53.

(b) Although Ladue has a concededly valid interest in minimizing visual clutter, it has almost completely foreclosed an important and distinct medium of expression to political, religious, or personal messages. Prohibitions foreclosing entire media may be completely free of content or viewpoint discrimination, but such measures can suppress too much speech by eliminating a common means of speaking. Pp. 54-55.

(c) Ladue's attempt to justify the ordinance as a "time, place, or manner" restriction fails because alternatives such as handbills and newspaper advertisements are inadequate substitutes for the important medium that Ladue has closed off. Displaying a sign from one's own residence carries a message quite distinct from placing the same sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means, for it provides information about the speaker's identity, an important component of many attempts to persuade. Residential signs are also



an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Furthermore, the audience intended to be reached by a residential sign-neighbors-could not be reached nearly as well by other means. Pp. 56-57.

(d) A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of this Nation's culture and law and has a special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person's ability to speak there. The decision reached here does not leave Ladue powerless to address the ills that may be associated with residential signs. In addition, residents' self-interest in maintaining their own property values and preventing "visual clutter" in their yards and neighborhoods diminishes the danger of an "unlimited" proliferation of signs. Pp. 58-59.

986 F.2d 1180, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 59.

Jordan B. Cherrick argued the cause for petitioners.

With him on the briefs were Robert F. Schlafly and Jay A. Summerville.

Gerald P. Greiman argued the cause for respondent.

With him on the brief were Martin M. Green, Mitchell A. Margo, and Steven R. Shapiro.

Deputy Solicitor General Bender argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, and Amy L. Wax. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of Hawaii et al. by J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, and Jack Schwartz and Diane Krejsa, Assistant Attorneys General, Robert A. Marks, Attorney General of Hawaii, Pamela Carter, Attorney General of Indiana, Jeffrey R. Howard, Attorney General of New Hampshire, Fred DeVesa, Acting Attorney General of New Jersey, Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Attorney General of Vermont; and for the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers et al. by Richard Ruda and Lee Fennell.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Advertising Federation et al. by Richard E. Wiley, Lawrence W Secrest III, Howard H. Bell, John F. Kamp, David S. Versfelt, Kenneth M. Vittor, and Slade Metcalf; for the Association of National Advertisers, Inc., by Burt Neuborne and Gilbert H. Weil; for People for the American Way

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Local governments cannot enforce a general rule forbidding all signs on residential property.


An ordinance in the City of Ladue prohibited all signs on residential property, with certain limited exceptions such as "for sale" signs of a small size. Gilleo, a property owner in the City, placed a sign on her property protesting the Gulf War. She was cited for violating the ordinance and then brought a claim in federal district court to challenge its constitutionality under the First Amendment. Both of the lower courts agreed that the ordinance was unconstitutional.



  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • David H. Souter
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Antonin Scalia
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Writing for a unanimous Court, Stevens found that the First Amendment clearly protected the political speech expressed in the sign. On the other hand, local and state governments have a certain degree of authority over the placement of the signs under their police power, since they have an interest in ensuring that the signs do not obstruct views or take up inordinate space. This ordinance was much too broad in the amount of speech that it prohibited, considering that any regulation in this area must be narrowly tailored to control only time, place, and manner. Stevens noted that there were no reasonable alternatives to the use of the sign, which is a long-standing and important form of expression for individuals of modest means.


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)

Case Commentary

This case echoed an earlier decision that found an ordinance unconstitutional that prohibited "for sale" signs on the grounds that they encouraged white flight. Since this ordinance was much more sweeping, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that it would be struck down.

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