Reed v. Town of Gilbert,
576 U.S. ___ (2015)

Annotate this Case



No. 13–502



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[June 18, 2015]

Justice Alito, with whom Justice Kennedy and Justice Sotomayor join, concurring.

I join the opinion of the Court but add a few words of further explanation.

As the Court holds, what we have termed “content-based” laws must satisfy strict scrutiny. Content-based laws merit this protection because they present, albeit sometimes in a subtler form, the same dangers as laws that regulate speech based on viewpoint. Limiting speech based on its “topic” or “subject” favors those who do not want to disturb the status quo. Such regulations may interfere with democratic self-government and the search for truth. See Consolidated Edison Co. of N. Y. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N. Y., 447 U. S. 530, 537 (1980) .

As the Court shows, the regulations at issue in this case are replete with content-based distinctions, and as a result they must satisfy strict scrutiny. This does not mean, however, that municipalities are powerless to enact and enforce reasonable sign regulations. I will not attempt to provide anything like a comprehensive list, but here are some rules that would not be content based:

Rules regulating the size of signs. These rules may distinguish among signs based on any content-neutral criteria, including any relevant criteria listed below.

Rules regulating the locations in which signs may be placed. These rules may distinguish between free-standing signs and those attached to buildings.

Rules distinguishing between lighted and unlighted signs.

Rules distinguishing between signs with fixed messages and electronic signs with messages that change.

Rules that distinguish between the placement of signs on private and public property.

Rules distinguishing between the placement of signs on commercial and residential property.

Rules distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs.

Rules restricting the total number of signs allowed per mile of roadway.

Rules imposing time restrictions on signs advertising a one-time event. Rules of this nature do not discriminate based on topic or subject and are akin to rules restricting the times within which oral speech or music is allowed.[1]*

In addition to regulating signs put up by private actors, government entities may also erect their own signs consistent with the principles that allow governmental speech. See Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460 –469 (2009). They may put up all manner of signs to promote safety, as well as directional signs and signs pointing out historic sites and scenic spots.

Properly understood, today’s decision will not prevent cities from regulating signs in a way that fully protects public safety and serves legitimate esthetic objectives.


1 * Of course, content-neutral restrictions on speech are not necessarily consistent with the First Amendment. Time, place, and manner restrictions “must be narrowly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate, content-neutral interests.” Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781, 798 (1989) . But they need not meet the high standard imposed on viewpoint- and content-based restrictions.
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