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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Sign Case

We don't see a lot of land use cases at the Supreme Court level.  For those of us who practice in this area, we get a little excited when the Supremes decide to tackle a land use case.  I can still remember the anticipation of last year's ruling in Koontz.  So, you can imagine the interest in the Supreme Court's recent decision to grant cert. (meaning they will hear the appeal) in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a case involving a challenge to a town's sign ordinance.  

The Town of Gilbert's ordinance restricts the time period that temporary signs can be maintained.  It also distinguishes between different types of temporary signs, categorizing them as (1) political signs; (2) event signs; and (3) other noncommercial signs.  A local church, Good News, received a notice of violation for placing about 17 signs in the area surrounding its place of worship in Gilbert announcing the time and location of its services. The notice stated that the signs violated the town’s sign ordinance because “the signs were displayed outside the statutorily-limited time period.” Good News subsequently filed suit in federal court in Arizona alleging that Gilbert’s Sign Code violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case made its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Town of Gilbert's sign ordinance.  

First, the Court of Appeals determined that the sign ordinance “regulates physical characteristics, such as size, number and construction of the signs,” their locations, and the timing of displays, none of which "implicate the content of speech.”  Second, the Court held that the restrictions on time, place and manner imposed by Gilbert on the display of temporary signs advance the aesthetic and safety interests by limiting the size, duration and proliferation of signs.  Third, the Court held that the ordinance left Good News with ample alternative methods of speech.  Finally, the Court rejected Good News' argument that the Town's distinct regulations for different types of speech (for example, political candidate signs can be larger than event signs) was unconstitutional.

Some commentators argue that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case because the Town's sign ordinance treats political speech more favorably than religious speech - political signs can be up to 32 square feet in size and other signs (including signs of religious organizations such as Good News) could be only 20 square feet or 6 square feet in size, depending on whether the message related to a qualifying event or not, respectively.  Others say that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals got it wrong in holding that the ordinance was content-neutral, given the distinctions between political signs and others.  This will certainly be a case to watch for municipalities, as the decision could certainly impact how municipalities regulate temporary signs (or any sign, for that matter). 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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