The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that cities and towns generally cannot limit roadside signs based on what they say.
The justices unanimously said the town of Gilbert, Ariz., violated the First Amendment by giving signs promoting a church’s worship services vastly inferior treatment compared to political campaign signs.
Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the town law limiting the size of the church’s signs and the length of time for which they could be displayed was a “content-based” restriction on the church’s speech. He said the town had no justification for such a restriction, and it was therefore unconstitutional.
The case was touted by lawyers for Good News Community Church as a major test of religious freedom, but the justices didn’t treat it that way. Rather, they said local governments must be able to justify the disparate treatment accorded organizations seeking to spread their messages.
The justices split, however, on how difficult it should be for governments to clear the bar. Thomas’s majority opinion said they can do so only if the policy serves a compelling governmental interest, a standard that few laws can meet. Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted that standard will bring a rash of lawsuits against more reasonable sign regulations.
While Kagan wrote that Gilbert’s law did not pass even “the laugh test” because it lacked reasons for its signage distinctions, she warned that the new, higher standard needed to justify regulations could jeopardize even signs pointing the way to where George Washington slept.
“Our communities will find themselves in an unenviable bind,” Kagan said. “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.”
Thomas, joined by five of the court’s other justices, said courts must be skeptical of any law that limits speech based on its content, and that sign laws are no exception.
“Innocent motives do not eliminate the danger of censorship presented by a facially content-based statute,” he wrote, adding that “future officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech.”
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SOURCE: USA Today – Richard Wolf and Brad Heath