Reed v. Town of Gilbert
576 US ___ (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 Kagan, with whom Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer join, concurring in the judgment.

Countless cities and towns across America have adopted ordinances regulating the posting of signs, while exempting certain categories of signs based on their subject matter. For example, some municipalities generally prohibit illuminated signs in residential neighborhoods, but lift that ban for signs that identify the address of a home or the name of its owner or occupant. See, e.g., City of Truth or Consequences, N. M., Code of Ordinances, ch. 16, Art. XIII, §§11–13–2.3, 11–13–2.9(H)(4) (2014). In other municipalities, safety signs such as “Blind Pedestrian Crossing” and “Hidden Driveway” can be posted without a permit, even as other permanent signs require one. See, e.g., Code of Athens-Clarke County, Ga., Pt. III, §7–4–7(1) (1993). Elsewhere, historic site markers—for example, “George Washington Slept Here”—are also exempt from general regulations. See, e.g., Dover, Del., Code of Ordinances, Pt. II, App. B, Art. 5, §4.5(F) (2012). And simi-larly, the federal Highway Beautification Act limits signs along interstate highways unless, for instance, they direct travelers to “scenic and historical attractions” or advertise free coffee. See 23 U. S. C. §§131(b), (c)(1), (c)(5).

Given the Court’s analysis, many sign ordinances of that kind are now in jeopardy. See ante, at 14 (acknowledging that “entirely reasonable” sign laws “will sometimes be struck down” under its approach (internal quotation marks omitted)). Says the majority: When laws “single[ ] out specific subject matter,” they are “facially content based”; and when they are facially content based, they are automatically subject to strict scrutiny. Ante, at 12, 16–17. And although the majority holds out hope that some sign laws with subject-matter exemptions “might survive” that stringent review, ante, at 17, the likelihood is that most will be struck down. After all, it is the “rare case[ ] in which a speech restriction withstands strict scrutiny.” Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 575 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 9). To clear that high bar, the government must show that a content-based distinction “is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U. S. 221, 231 (1987) . So on the majority’s view, courts would have to determine that a town has a compelling interest in informing passersby where George Washington slept. And likewise, courts would have to find that a town has no other way to prevent hidden-driveway mishaps than by specially treating hidden-driveway signs. (Well-placed speed bumps? Lower speed limits? Or how about just a ban on hidden driveways?) The consequence—unless courts water down strict scrutiny to something unrecognizable—is that our communities will find themselves in an unenviable bind: They will have to either repeal the exemptions that allow for helpful signs on streets and sidewalks, or else lift their sign restrictions altogether and resign themselves to the resulting clutter.[1]*

Although the majority insists that applying strict scrutiny to all such ordinances is “essential” to protecting First Amendment freedoms, ante, at 14, I find it challenging to understand why that is so. This Court’s decisions articulate two important and related reasons for subjecting content-based speech regulations to the most exacting standard of review. The first is “to preserve an uninhib-ited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.” McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2014) (slip op., at 8–9) (internal quotation marks omitted). The second is to ensure that the government has not regulated speech “based on hostility—or favoritism—towards the underlying message expressed.” R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377, 386 (1992) . Yet the subject-matter exemptions included in many sign ordinances do not implicate those concerns. Allowing residents, say, to install a light bulb over “name and address” signs but no others does not distort the marketplace of ideas. Nor does that different treatment give rise to an inference of impermissible government motive.

We apply strict scrutiny to facially content-based regulations of speech, in keeping with the rationales just described, when there is any “realistic possibility that official suppression of ideas is afoot.” Davenport v. Washington Ed. Assn., 551 U. S. 177, 189 (2007) (quoting R. A. V., 505 U. S., at 390). That is always the case when the regulation facially differentiates on the basis of viewpoint. See Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 829 (1995) . It is also the case (except in non-public or limited public forums) when a law restricts “discussion of an entire topic” in public debate. Consolidated Edison Co. of N. Y. v. Public Serv. Comm’n of N. Y., 447 U. S. 530 –540 (1980) (invalidating a limitation on speech about nuclear power). We have stated that “[i]f the marketplace of ideas is to remain free and open, governments must not be allowed to choose ‘which issues are worth discussing or debating.’ ” Id., at 537–538 (quoting Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U. S. 92, 96 (1972) ). And we have recognized that such subject-matter restrictions, even though viewpoint-neutral on their face, may “suggest[ ] an attempt to give one side of a debatable public question an advantage in expressing its views to the people.” First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765, 785 (1978) ; accord, ante, at 1 (Alito, J., concurring) (limiting all speech on one topic “favors those who do not want to disturb the status quo”). Subject-matter regulation, in other words, may have the intent or effect of favoring some ideas over others. When that is realistically possible—when the restriction “raises the specter that the Government may effectively drive certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace”—we insist that the law pass the most demanding constitutional test. R. A. V., 505 U. S., at 387 (quoting Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N. Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U. S. 105, 116 (1991) ).

But when that is not realistically possible, we may do well to relax our guard so that “entirely reasonable” laws imperiled by strict scrutiny can survive. Ante, at 14. This point is by no means new. Our concern with content-based regulation arises from the fear that the government will skew the public’s debate of ideas—so when “that risk is inconsequential, . . . strict scrutiny is unwarranted.” Davenport, 551 U. S., at 188; see R. A. V., 505 U. S., at 388 (approving certain content-based distinctions when there is “no significant danger of idea or viewpoint discrimination”). To do its intended work, of course, the category of content-based regulation triggering strict scrutiny must sweep more broadly than the actual harm; that category exists to create a buffer zone guaranteeing that the government cannot favor or disfavor certain viewpoints. But that buffer zone need not extend forever. We can administer our content-regulation doctrine with a dose of common sense, so as to leave standing laws that in no way implicate its intended function.

And indeed we have done just that: Our cases have been far less rigid than the majority admits in applying strict scrutiny to facially content-based laws—including in cases just like this one. See Davenport, 551 U. S., at 188 (noting that “we have identified numerous situations in which [the] risk” attached to content-based laws is “attenuated”). In Members of City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U. S. 789 (1984) , the Court declined to apply strict scrutiny to a municipal ordinance that exempted address numbers and markers commemorating “historical, cultural, or artistic event[s]” from a generally applicable limit on sidewalk signs. Id., at 792, n. 1 (listing exemptions); see id., at 804–810 (upholding ordinance under intermediate scrutiny). After all, we explained, the law’s enactment and enforcement revealed “not even a hint of bias or censorship.” Id., at 804; see also Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U. S. 41, 48 (1986) (applying intermediate scrutiny to a zoning law that facially distinguished among movie theaters based on content because it was “designed to prevent crime, protect the city’s retail trade, [and] maintain property values . . . , not to suppress the expression of unpopular views”). And another decision involving a similar law provides an alternative model. In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U. S. 43 (1994) , the Court assumed arguendo that a sign ordinance’s exceptions for address signs, safety signs, and for-sale signs in residential areas did not trigger strict scrutiny. See id., at 46–47, and n. 6 (listing exemptions); id., at 53 (noting this assumption). We did not need to, and so did not, decide the level-of-scrutiny question because the law’s breadth made it unconstitutional under any standard.

The majority could easily have taken Ladue’s tack here. The Town of Gilbert’s defense of its sign ordinance—most notably, the law’s distinctions between directional signs and others—does not pass strict scrutiny, or intermediate scrutiny, or even the laugh test. See ante, at 14–15 (discussing those distinctions). The Town, for example, provides no reason at all for prohibiting more than four directional signs on a property while placing no limits on the number of other types of signs. See Gilbert, Ariz., Land Development Code, ch. I, §§4.402(J), (P)(2) (2014). Similarly, the Town offers no coherent justification for restricting the size of directional signs to 6 square feet while allowing other signs to reach 20 square feet. See §§4.402(J), (P)(1). The best the Town could come up with at oral argument was that directional signs “need to be smaller because they need to guide travelers along a route.” Tr. of Oral Arg. 40. Why exactly a smaller sign better helps travelers get to where they are going is left a mystery. The absence of any sensible basis for these and other distinctions dooms the Town’s ordinance under even the intermediate scrutiny that the Court typically applies to “time, place, or manner” speech regulations. Accordingly, there is no need to decide in this case whether strict scrutiny applies to every sign ordinance in every town across this country containing a subject-matter exemption.

I suspect this Court and others will regret the majority’s insistence today on answering that question in the affirmative. As the years go by, courts will discover that thousands of towns have such ordinances, many of them “entirely reasonable.” Ante, at 14. And as the challenges to them mount, courts will have to invalidate one after the other. (This Court may soon find itself a veritable Supreme Board of Sign Review.) And courts will strike down those democratically enacted local laws even though no one—certainly not the majority—has ever explained why the vindication of First Amendment values requires that result. Because I see no reason why such an easy case calls for us to cast a constitutional pall on reasonable regulations quite unlike the law before us, I concur only in the judgment.


1 * Even in trying (commendably) to limit today’s decision, Justice Alito’s concurrence highlights its far-reaching effects. According to Justice Alito, the majority does not subject to strict scrutiny regulations of “signs advertising a one-time event.” Ante, at 2 (Alito, J., concurring). But of course it does. On the majority’s view, a law with an exception for such signs “singles out specific subject matter for differential treatment” and “defin[es] regulated speech by particular subject matter.” Ante, at 6, 12 (majority opinion). Indeed, the precise reason the majority applies strict scrutiny here is that “the Code singles out signs bearing a particular message: the time and location of a specific event.” Ante, at 14.
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