Supreme Court

SCOTUS Grills Arizona Town Over Treatment of Church Signs

Justices appear to find free speech violation.


Credit: C-SPAN

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument this morning in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a free speech case arising from an Arizona town's lopsided regulatory treatment of political, ideological, and directional signs placed on public property.

Up first at the lectern was David A. Cortman, the attorney for Pastor Clyde Reed of Gilbert's Good News Community Church. "The town's code discriminates on its face," he told the justices, "by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they say." As an illustration, Cortman noted that "political signs may be 32 square feet, may be unlimited in number, and may be placed in the right-of-way of the entire town for five months before the election." The signs for his client's church, by contrast, "can only be one-fifth of that [size]," and may only be placed 12 hours before church services are held and must be promptly removed afterwards. "All our argument is," Cortman said, "is that [the town of Gilbert] do it across the board and not treat signs differently based on their content."

Cortman faced no shortage of sharp questioning from the bench. But the morning's real fireworks occurred when the Atlanta lawyer Philip Savrin rose to defend the Gilbert sign ordinance. Once Savrin got started, things quickly went from bad to worse for the Arizona town.

"You are not even purporting to have a content-neutral justification for this," observed Justice Elena Kagan. "You are essentially saying, yes, we generally dislike clutter, but we're willing to make exceptions for speech that we think has special First Amendment significance."

Justice Antonin Scalia raised a similar concern. "Is there a First Amendment right for these other messages or not?" he asked Savrin. "Is there no First Amendment right to give somebody directions?"

But it was Justice Stephen Breyer who most clearly signaled the Court's impatience with the town's uneven treatment of the various signs it regulates:

JUSTICE BREYER: What is this about, this argument? I mean, you agree they can put up a big sign. Can they put up a big sign, ideological, saying, "Come to the next service next Tuesday, 4th and H Streets, three blocks right and two blocks left"? All right? Or are you saying they can't say, "three blocks right and two blocks left"? That's what this argument is about?

MR. SAVRIN: That is what it comes down to.

JUSTICE BREYER: Well, my goodness. I mean ­­– I mean, on that, it does sound as if the town is being a little unreasonable, doesn't it?

A decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert is expected by June 2015.

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  1. if only government actors being unreasonable was enough for the SCOTUS… what a world it would be.

    1. “Government actors can be unreasonable as long as they have a reasonable belief that their unreasonableness is reasonably unreasonable.” SCOTUS: “US v Them”

  2. I wonder sometimes how cases like this reach the Supremes. Are they not being smacked down hard at the lower levels?

    Isnt that an indictment of the inferior courts?

    1. But you can’t hold a whole inferior courts system responsible for the behavior of a few, sick perverted judges. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole appeals court system? And if the whole appeals court system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our judicial institutions in general? I put it to you, robc: isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!

  3. He’s making the wrong argument. Regulation of these signs is unconstitutional, whether that regulation is uniform or not.


  4. Yet, for some reason, the massively complex and intrusive ordinances for business signs is just totally okey-dokey with these purblind half-wits.

    Seriously, how does a town that has vast authority to regulate (business)signage all over the freaking town, with, I have no doubt, differing standards for different kinds of (business) signs, suddenly have zero authority to regulate (church/political) signage all over the freaking town, with different standards for different kinds of (church/political)signs.

    1. I found the crux of the argument interesting, “You can regulate based on content?”

      Well, duh, every municipality from sea to shining sea regulates signage based on content. All this AZ town did is show just how regulate-y they sometimes go.

      I’ma put up a sign that says “Fuck The Prophet Muhammad” and see what happens.

    2. Commercial speech enjoys less protection than noncommercial speech because the former is concerned with icky, icky commerce. The distinction is spelled right out in the First Amendment, although you need special judge glasses to see it.

  5. I’m guessing the motivation behind this sign is that the significant and powerful Mormon population of Gilbert are trying to inhibit competition.

    1. Ding ding ding. Given that there’s an LDS ward on every corner not inhabited by a Circle K, there’s zero need for those elders to advertise. The mid-size church I used to attend in Gilbert got sick of the issue and gave up on public signage entirely, keeping it solely on church property.

  6. Dude you know that is gonna be like real good man. Wow.

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