NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CLYDE REED, et al., PETITIONERS v.
TOWN OF GILBERT, ARIZONA, et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
[June 18, 2015]
Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.
The town of Gilbert, Arizona (or Town), has adopted a comprehensive code governing the manner in which people may display outdoor signs. Gilbert, Ariz., Land Development Code (Sign Code or Code), ch. 1, §4.402 (2005).[1
] The Sign Code identifies various categories of signs based on the type of information they convey, then subjects each category to different restrictions. One of the categories is “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to a Qualifying Event,” loosely defined as signs directing the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group. §4.402(P). The Code imposes more stringent restrictions on these signs than it doeson signs conveying other messages. We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.
The Sign Code prohibits the display of outdoor signs anywhere within the Town without a permit, but it then exempts 23 categories of signs from that requirement. These exemptions include everything from bazaar signs to flying banners. Three categories of exempt signs are particularly relevant here.
The first is “Ideological Sign[s].” This category includes any “sign communicating a message or ideas for noncommercial purposes that is not a Construction Sign, Directional Sign, Temporary Directional Sign Relating to a Qualifying Event, Political Sign, Garage Sale Sign, or a sign owned or required by a governmental agency.” Sign Code, Glossary of General Terms (Glossary), p. 23 (emphasis deleted). Of the three categories discussed here, the Code treats ideological signs most favorably, allowing them to be up to 20 square feet in area and to be placed in all “zoning districts” without time limits. §4.402(J).
The second category is “Political Sign[s].” This includes any “temporary sign designed to influence the outcome of an election called by a public body.” Glossary 23.[2
] The Code treats these signs less favorably than ideological signs. The Code allows the placement of political signs up to 16 square feet on residential property and up to 32 square feet on nonresidential property, undeveloped municipal property, and “rights-of-way.” §4.402(I).[3
] These signs may be displayed up to 60 days before a primary election and up to 15 days following a general election. Ibid.
The third category is “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to a Qualifying Event.” This includes any “Temporary Sign intended to direct pedestrians, motorists, and other passersby to a ‘qualifying event.’ ” Glossary 25 (emphasis deleted). A “qualifying event” is defined as any “assembly, gathering, activity, or meeting sponsored, arranged, or promoted by a religious, charitable, community service, educational, or other similar non-profit organization.” Ibid.
The Code treats temporary directional signs even less favorably than political signs.[4
] Temporary directional signs may be no larger than six square feet. §4.402(P). They may be placed on private property or on a public right-of-way, but no more than four signs may be placed on a single property at any time. Ibid
. And, they may be displayed no more than 12 hours before the “qualifying event” and no more than 1 hour afterward. Ibid.
Petitioners Good News Community Church (Church) and its pastor, Clyde Reed, wish to advertise the time and location of their Sunday church services. The Church is a small, cash-strapped entity that owns no building, so it holds its services at elementary schools or other locations in or near the Town. In order to inform the public about its services, which are held in a variety of different locations, the Church began placing 15 to 20 temporary signs around the Town, frequently in the public right-of-way abutting the street. The signs typically displayed the Church’s name, along with the time and location of the upcoming service. Church members would post the signs early in the day on Saturday and then remove them around midday on Sunday. The display of these signs requires little money and manpower, and thus has proved to be an economical and effective way for the Church to let the community know where its services are being held each week.
This practice caught the attention of the Town’s Sign Code compliance manager, who twice cited the Church for violating the Code. The first citation noted that the Church exceeded the time limits for displaying its temporary directional signs. The second citation referred to the same problem, along with the Church’s failure to include the date of the event on the signs. Town officials even confiscated one of the Church’s signs, which Reed had to retrieve from the municipal offices.
Reed contacted the Sign Code Compliance Department in an attempt to reach an accommodation. His efforts proved unsuccessful. The Town’s Code compliance manager informed the Church that there would be “no leni-ency under the Code” and promised to punish any futureviolations.
Shortly thereafter, petitioners filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, arguing that the Sign Code abridged their freedom of speech in violation of the First and
Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court denied the petitioners’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Sign Code’s provision regulating temporary directional signs did not regulate speech on the basis of content. 587 F. 3d 966, 979 (2009). It reasoned that, even though an enforcement officer would have to read the sign to determine what provisions of the Sign Code applied to it, the “ ‘kind of cursory examination’ ” that would be necessary for an officer to classify it as a temporary directional sign was “not akin to an officer synthesizing the expressive content of the sign.” Id.
, at 978. It then remanded for the District Court to determine in the first instance whether the Sign Code’s distinctions among temporary directional signs, political signs, and ideological signs nevertheless constituted a content-based regulation of speech.
On remand, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town. The Court of Appeals again affirmed, holding that the Code’s sign categories were content neutral. The court concluded that “the distinctions between Temporary Directional Signs, Ideological Signs, and Political Signs . . . are based on objective factors relevant to Gilbert’s creation of the specific exemption from the permit requirement and do not otherwise consider the substance of the sign.” 707 F. 3d 1057, 1069 (CA9 2013). Relying on this Court’s decision in Hill
530 U. S. 703 (2000)
, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Sign Code is content neutral. 707 F. 3d, at 1071–1072. As the court explained, “Gilbert did not adopt its regulation of speech because it disagreed with the message conveyed” and its “interests in regulat[ing] temporary signs are unrelated to the content of the sign.” Ibid.
Accord-ingly, the court believed that the Code was “content-neutral as that term [has been] defined by the Supreme Court.” Id.,
at 1071. In light of that determination, it applied a lower level of scrutiny to the Sign Code and concluded that the law did not violate the
First Amendment. Id.
, at 1073–1076.
We granted certiorari, 573 U. S. ___ (2014), and now reverse.
First Amendment, applicable to the States through the
Fourteenth Amendment, prohibits the enactment of laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” U. S. Const., Amdt. 1. Under that Clause, a government, including a municipal government vested with state authority, “has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Police Dept. of Chicago
408 U. S. 92,
. Content-based laws—those that target speech based on its communicative content—are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. R. A. V.
v. St. Paul
505 U. S. 377,
; Simon & Schuster, Inc.
v. Members of N. Y. State Crime Victims Bd.
502 U. S. 105,
Government regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. E.g., Sorrell
v. IMS Health, Inc.
, 564 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2011) (slip op., at 8–9); Carey
447 U. S. 455,
at 95. This commonsense meaning of the phrase “content based” requires a court to consider whether a regulation of speech “on its face” draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys. Sorrell
at ___ (slip op., at 8). Some facial distinctions based on a message are obvious, defining regulated speech by particular subject matter, and others are more subtle, defining regulated speech by its function or purpose. Both are distinctions drawn based on the message a speaker conveys, and, therefore, are subject to strict scrutiny.
Our precedents have also recognized a separate and additional category of laws that, though facially content neutral, will be considered content-based regulations of speech: laws that cannot be “ ‘justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,’ ” or that were adopted by the government “because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys,” Ward
v. Rock Against Racism
491 U. S. 781,
Those laws, like those that are content based on their face, must also satisfy strict scrutiny.
The Town’s Sign Code is content based on its face. It defines “Temporary Directional Signs” on the basis of whether a sign conveys the message of directing the public to church or some other “qualifying event.” Glossary 25. It defines “Political Signs” on the basis of whether a sign’s message is “designed to influence the outcome of an election.” Id.,
at 24. And it defines “Ideological Signs” on the basis of whether a sign “communicat[es] a message or ideas” that do not fit within the Code’s other categories. Id.,
It then subjects each of these categories to different restrictions.
The restrictions in the Sign Code that apply to any given sign thus depend entirely on the communicative content of the sign. If a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both signs will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government. More to the point, the Church’s signs inviting people to attend its worship services are treated differently from signs conveying other types of ideas. On its face, the Sign Code is a content-based regulation of speech. We thus have no need to consider the government’s justifications or purposes for enacting the Code to determine whether it is subject to strict scrutiny.
In reaching the contrary conclusion, the Court of Appeals offered several theories to explain why the Town’s Sign Code should be deemed content neutral. None is persuasive.
The Court of Appeals first determined that the Sign Code was content neutral because the Town “did not adopt its regulation of speech [based on] disagree[ment] with the message conveyed,” and its justifications for regulating temporary directional signs were “unrelated to the content of the sign.” 707 F. 3d, at 1071–1072. In its brief to this Court, the United States similarly contends that a sign regulation is content neutral—even if it expressly draws distinctions based on the sign’s communicative content—if those distinctions can be “ ‘justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.’ ” Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae
20, 24 (quoting Ward, supra
, at 791; emphasis deleted).
But this analysis skips the crucial first step in thecontent-neutrality analysis: determining whether the law is content neutral on its face. A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained” in the regulated speech. Cincinnati
v. Discovery Network
507 U. S. 410,
. We have thus made clear that “ ‘[i]llicit legislative intent is not the sine qua non
of a violation of the
First Amendment,’ ” and a party opposing the government “need adduce ‘no evidence of an improper censorial motive.’ ” Simon & Schuster, supra,
at 117. Although “a content-based purpose may be sufficient in certain circumstances to show that a regulation is content based, it is not necessary.” Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
512 U. S. 622,
. In other words, an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content-based law into one that is content neutral.
That is why we have repeatedly considered whether a law is content neutral on its face before
turning to the law’s justification or purpose. See, e.g., Sorrell
at ___–___ (slip op., at 8–9) (statute was content based “on its face,” and there was also evidence of an impermissible legislative motive); United States
496 U. S. 310,
(“Although the [statute] contains no ex-plicit content-based limitation on the scope of prohibited conduct, it is nevertheless clear that the Government’s asserted interest
is related to the suppression of free expression” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Members of City Council of Los Angeles
v. Taxpayers for Vincent
466 U. S. 789,
(“The text of the ordinance is neutral,” and “there is not even a hint of bias or censorship in the City’s enactment or enforcement of this ordinance”); Clark
v. Community for Creative Non-Violence
468 U. S. 288,
(requiring that a facially content-neutral ban on camping must be “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech”); United States
391 U. S. 367,
(noting that the statute “on its face deals with conduct having no connection with speech,” but examining whether the “the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression”). Because strict scrutiny applies either when a law is content based on its face or when the purpose and justification for the law are content based, a court must evaluate each question before it concludes that the law is content neutral and thus subject to a lower level of scrutiny.
The Court of Appeals and the United States misunderstand our decision in Ward
as suggesting that a government’s purpose is relevant even when a law is content based on its face. That is incorrect. Ward
had nothing to say about facially content-based restrictions because it involved a facially content-neutral
ban on the use, in a city-owned music venue, of sound amplification systems not provided by the city. 491 U. S., at 787, and n. 2. In that context, we looked to governmental motive, including whether the government had regulated speech “because of disagreement” with its message, and whether the regulation was “ ‘justified without reference to the content of the speech.’ ” Id.,
at 791. But Ward
’s framework “applies only if a statute is content neutral.” Hill
, 530 U. S., at 766 (Kennedy, J., dissenting). Its rules thus operate “to protect speech,” not “to restrict it.” Id.,
First Amendment requires no less. Innocent motives do not eliminate the danger of censorship presented by a facially content-based statute, as future government officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech. That is why the
First Amendment expressly targets the operation of the laws—i.e.,
the “abridg[ement] of speech”—rather than merely the motives of those who enacted them. U. S. Const., Amdt. 1. “ ‘The vice of content-based legislation . . . is not that it is always used for invidious, thought-control purposes, but that it lends itself to use for those purposes.’ ” Hill, supra,
at 743 (Scalia, J., dissenting).
For instance, in NAACP
371 U. S. 415 (1963)
, the Court encountered a State’s attempt to use a statute prohibiting “ ‘improper solicitation’ ” by attorneys to outlaw litigation-related speech of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Id.,
at 438. Although Button
predated our more recent formulations of strict scrutiny, the Court rightly rejected the State’s claim that its interest in the “regulation of professional conduct” rendered the statute consistent with the
First Amendment, observing that “it is no answer . . . to say . . . that the purpose of these regulations was merely to insure high professional standards and not to curtail free expression.” Id.,
at 438–439. Likewise, one could easily imagine a Sign Code compliance manager who disliked the Church’s substantive teachings deploying the Sign Code to make it more difficult for the Church to inform the public of the location of its services. Accordingly, we have repeatedly “rejected the argument that ‘discriminatory . . . treatment is suspect under the
First Amendment only when the legislature intends to suppress certain ideas.’ ” Discovery Network,
507 U. S., at 429. We do so again today.
The Court of Appeals next reasoned that the Sign Code was content neutral because it “does not mention any idea or viewpoint, let alone single one out for differential treatment.” 587 F. 3d, at 977. It reasoned that, for the purpose of the Code provisions, “[i]t makes no difference which candidate is supported, who sponsors the event, or what ideological perspective is asserted.” 707 F. 3d, at 1069.
The Town seizes on this reasoning, insisting that “content based” is a term of art that “should be applied flexibly” with the goal of protecting “viewpoints and ideas from government censorship or favoritism.” Brief for Respondents 22. In the Town’s view, a sign regulation that “does not censor or favor particular viewpoints or ideas” cannot be content based. Ibid
. The Sign Code allegedly passes this test because its treatment of temporary directional signs does not raise any concerns that the government is “endorsing or suppressing ‘ideas or viewpoints,’ ” id.
, at 27, and the provisions for political signs and ideological signs “are neutral as to particular ideas or viewpoints” within those categories. Id.
, at 37.
This analysis conflates two distinct but related limitations that the
First Amendment places on government regulation of speech. Government discrimination among viewpoints—or the regulation of speech based on “the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker”—is a “more blatant” and “egregious form of content discrimination.” Rosenberger
v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va.
515 U. S. 819,
. But it is well established that “[t]he
First Amendment’s hostility to content-based regulation extends not only to restrictions on particular viewpoints, but also to prohibition of public discussion of an entire topic.” Consolidated Edison Co. of N. Y.
v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N. Y.
447 U. S. 530,
Thus, a speech regulation targeted at specific subject matter is content based even if it does not discriminate among viewpoints within that subject matter. Ibid.
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. See Discovery Network, supra,
at 428. 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.
Finally, the Court of Appeals characterized the Sign Code’s distinctions as turning on “ ‘the content-neutral elements of who is speaking through the sign and whether and when an event is occurring.’ ” 707 F. 3d, at 1069. That analysis is mistaken on both factual and legal grounds.
To start, the Sign Code’s distinctions are not speaker based. The restrictions for political, ideological, and temporary event signs apply equally no matter who sponsors them. If a local business, for example, sought to put up signs advertising the Church’s meetings, those signs would be subject to the same limitations as such signs placed by the Church. And if Reed had decided to dis-play signs in support of a particular candidate, he could have made those signs far larger—and kept them up for far longer—than signs inviting people to attend hischurch services. If the Code’s distinctions were truly speaker based, both types of signs would receive the same treatment.
In any case, the fact that a distinction is speaker based does not, as the Court of Appeals seemed to believe, automatically render the distinction content neutral. Because “[s]peech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content,” Citizens United
v. Federal Election Comm’n
558 U. S. 310,
, we have insisted that “laws favoring some speakers over others demand strict scrutiny when the legislature’s speaker preference reflects a content preference,” Turner,
512 U. S., at 658. Thus, a law limiting the content of newspapers, but only newspapers, could not evade strict scrutiny simply because it could be characterized as speaker based. Likewise, a content-based law that restricted the political speech of all corporations would not become content neutral just because it singled out corporations as a class of speakers. See Citizens United, supra
, at 340–341. Characterizing a distinction as speaker based is only the beginning—not the end—of the inquiry.
Nor do the Sign Code’s distinctions hinge on “whether and when an event is occurring.” The Code does not permit citizens to post signs on any topic whatsoever within a set period leading up to an election, for example. Instead, come election time, it requires Town officials to determine whether a sign is “designed to influence the outcome of an election” (and thus “political”) or merely “communicating a message or ideas for noncommercial purposes” (and thus “ideological”). Glossary 24. That obvious content-based inquiry does not evade strict scrutiny review simply because an event (i.e.,
an election) is involved.
And, just as with speaker-based laws, the fact that a distinction is event based does not render it content neutral. The Court of Appeals cited no precedent from this Court supporting its novel theory of an exception from the content-neutrality requirement for event-based laws. As we have explained, a speech regulation is content based if the law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. Supra,
at 6. A regulation that targets a sign because it conveys an idea about a specific event is no less content based than a regulation that targets a sign because it conveys some other idea. Here, the Code singles out signs bearing a particular message: the time and location of a specific event. This type of ordinance may seem like a perfectly rational way to regulate signs, but a clear and firm rule governing content neutrality is an essential means of protecting the freedom of speech, even if laws that might seem “entirely reasonable” will sometimes be “struck down because of their content-based nature.” City of Ladue
512 U. S. 43,
(O’Connor, J., concurring).
Because the Town’s Sign Code imposes content-based restrictions on speech, those provisions can stand only if they survive strict scrutiny, “ ‘which requires the Government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest,’ ” Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC
, 564 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 8) (quoting Citizens United
, 558 U. S.,
at 340). Thus, it is the Town’s burden to demonstrate that the Code’s differentiation between temporary directional signs and other types of signs, such as political signs and ideological signs, furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to that end. See ibid
The Town cannot do so. It has offered only two governmental interests in support of the distinctions the Sign Code draws: preserving the Town’s aesthetic appeal and traffic safety. Assuming for the sake of argument that those are compelling governmental interests, the Code’s distinctions fail as hopelessly underinclusive.
Starting with the preservation of aesthetics, temporary directional signs are “no greater an eyesore,” Discovery Network
, 507 U. S.,
at 425, than ideological or political ones. Yet the Code allows unlimited proliferation of larger ideological signs while strictly limiting the number, size, and duration of smaller directional ones. The Town cannot claim that placing strict limits on temporary directional signs is necessary to beautify the Town while at the same time allowing unlimited numbers of other types of signs that create the same problem.
The Town similarly has not shown that limiting temporary directional signs is necessary to eliminate threats to traffic safety, but that limiting other types of signs is not. The Town has offered no reason to believe that directional signs pose a greater threat to safety than do ideological or political signs. If anything, a sharply worded ideological sign seems more likely to distract a driver than a sign directing the public to a nearby church meeting.
In light of this underinclusiveness, the Town has not met its burden to prove that its Sign Code is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest. Because a “ ‘law cannot be regarded as protecting an interest of the highest order, and thus as justifying a restriction on truthful speech, when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly vital interest unprohibited,’ ” Republican Party of Minn.
536 U. S. 765,
, the Sign Code fails strict scrutiny.
Our decision today will not prevent governments from enacting effective sign laws. The Town asserts that an “ ‘absolutist’ ” content-neutrality rule would render “virtually all distinctions in sign laws . . . subject to strict scrutiny,” Brief for Respondents 34–35, but that is not the case. Not “all distinctions” are subject to strict scrutiny, only content-based
ones are. Laws that are content neutral
are instead subject to lesser scrutiny. See Clark
, 468 U. S., at 295.
The Town has ample content-neutral options available to resolve problems with safety and aesthetics. For example, its current Code regulates many aspects of signs that have nothing to do with a sign’s message: size, building materials, lighting, moving parts, and portability. See, e.g.,
§4.402(R). And on public property, the Town may go a long way toward entirely forbidding the posting of signs, so long as it does so in an evenhanded, content-neutral manner. See Taxpayers for Vincent
, 466 U. S., at 817 (upholding content-neutral ban against posting signs on public property). Indeed, some lower courts have long held that similar content-based sign laws receive strict scrutiny, but there is no evidence that towns in those jurisdictions have suffered catastrophic effects. See, e.g., Solantic, LLC
v. Neptune Beach
, 410 F. 3d 1250, 1264–1269 (CA11 2005) (sign categories similar to the town of Gilbert’s were content based and subject to strict scru-tiny); Matthews
, 764 F. 2d 58, 59–60 (CA1 1985) (law banning political signs but not commercial signs was content based and subject to strict scrutiny).
We acknowledge that a city might reasonably view the general regulation of signs as necessary because signs “take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative uses for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation.” City of Ladue
512 U. S., at 48. At the same time, the presence of certain signs may be essential, both for vehicles and pedestrians, to guide traffic or to identify hazards and ensure safety. A sign ordinance narrowly tailored to the challenges of protecting the safety of pedestrians, drivers, and passengers—such as warning signs marking hazards on private property, signs directing traffic, or street numbers associated with private houses—well might survive strict scrutiny. The signs at issue in this case, including political and ideological signs and signs for events, are far removed from those purposes. As discussed above, they are facially content based and are neither justified by traditional safety concerns nor narrowly tailored.
* * *
We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.