Jim Porter: U.S. Supreme Court goes crazy protecting free speech
Special to the Sun
The First Amendment prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” It sounds simple, but of course it is not.
My cliché about the First Amendment is that it is “overrated.” People can lie and tell fabricated stories and print false information – all under the guise of free speech.
Anonymous bloggers have licenses to fabricate. Campaign hit pieces distort the truth with impunity. As an alleged writer, I should jump with joy for the First Amendment, but I question how it is used. Like today’s case.
Gilbert, Arizona Sign Code
Gilbert, Arizona has a comprehensive sign code. It prohibits the display of outdoor signs without a permit but regulates 23 categories of signs, including “Ideological Signs,” communicating a message or ideas, “Political Signs” and “Temporary Directional Signs.”
Each of those categories of signs is treated differently under the Town’s sign ordinance – as you would expect.
Good News Community Church
The Good News Community Church is a small, cash-strapped entity, as the Supreme Court wrote, so it holds services at elementary schools and any other viable location in Gilbert.
To attract church-goers, the Good News Church consistently placed about 15 to 20 temporary signs around Town, more than is allowed under Gilbert’s sign code.
Pastor Clyde Reed prayed to his god for relief, found none, and sued the good city of Gilbert, Arizona.
If God doesn’t work, try a lawyer. That should be the headline for this column.
Of the Town’s 23 categories of regulated signs, three are of interest for our column and Pastor Reed.
Ideological Signs, whatever that is, are barely regulated at all. Political Signs are severely limited in size and may be displayed up to 60 days before a primary election and up to 15 days following a general election.
Temporary Directional Signs, relating to a “qualifying event” are treated even less favorably than Political Signs under the sign ordinance.
Temporary Directional Signs are size and number-restricted and may be displayed no more than 12 hours before the qualifying event and no more than one hour afterwards.
Pastor Reed wanted to spread the gospel by placing Temporary Directional Signs wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Just like Jesus. And he did, resulting in signs being confiscated.
Pastor Reed and his Church sued Gilbert claiming its sign ordinances were an infringement on the church’s First Amendment rights.
Gilbert defended claiming their sign ordinances were content-neutral, so constitutional.
The Federal District Court and the Federal Court of Appeals ruled for the City, finding the three categories of signs were content-neutral. I agree.
The regulatory distinctions between Temporary Directional Signs, Ideological Signs, and Political Signs are based on objective factors about the topic and types and locations of signs and in no way regulate the content of the signs.
The ordinances do not differentiate regarding which candidate to support or who sponsors the event or what ideological perspective is asserted. The sign ordinances do not violate the First Amendment. That’s my final ruling.
Unanimous Supreme Court
The Supreme Court was unanimous in rejecting me and Gilbert, Arizona’s sign ordinances, writing: “The Town has offered no reason to believe that directional signs pose a greater threat to safety than do ideological or political signs … the Town cannot claim that placing strict limits on temporary directional signs is necessary to beautify the Town while at the same time allowing unlimited numbers of other types of signs that create the same problem.”
I must be missing something. I see this Supreme Court free speech decision as messing with towns’ and counties’ standard run-of-the-mill sign ordinances.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.