Directional Signs Protected by the First Amendment

June 27, 2015 By Gust Rosenfeld In Legal Alerts

Temporary directional signs are protected by the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled. The Town of Gilbert, Arizona had an ordinance restricting the usage of outdoor signs, including temporary directional signs. The Town cited preservation of aesthetic appeal and roadway safety as the justification for the restriction.

Clyde Reed, the pastor of the Good News Community Church, which met at various locations in Gilbert, posted 17 temporary directional signs to help churchgoers locate services. He displayed the signs Saturday mornings and routinely took them down Sunday afternoons. The Town issued Pastor Reed citations for violation of the sign ordinance and Reed challenged the ordinance in Federal Court.

The Court focused on three particular parts of the Gilbert sign code: “ideological signs” that communicate a non-commercial message or idea, “political signs” that intend to influence the outcome of an election and “temporary directional signs” that direct people to religious, charitable or other “qualifying events.” Pointing out that Gilbert’s restrictions on temporary directional signs were more onerous than, for example, ideological or political signs, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, dismissed the argument that the directional sign restrictions were necessary to preserve aesthetic appeal and roadway safety. The Court explained that temporary directional signs were no greater eyesores or threats to safety than ideological or political signs.

The Court also found that regulation of temporary directional signs is content based and subject to strict scrutiny, the most stringent First Amendment test. “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,” the Court wrote.

The Court’s decision should prompt municipalities to scrutinize their sign codes and examine how they regulate different types and content of signs.

For more information, please contact one of our attorneys below:

Robert D. Haws | 602-257-7976 |
Susan Plimpton Segal | 602-257-7425 |
Jennifer N. MacLennan | 602-257-7475 |

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