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SCOTUS Sides With Content Neutrality – And the Sign Industry

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After approximately five months of anticipation, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) finally rendered a decision regarding Reed v. Town of Gilbert on June 18. In today’s hyper-partisan Washington, DC, it’s rare to see decisive action taken by any of the three decision-making branches of the federal government without blame or finger-pointing. Yet, all nine justices agreed with the case of the plaintiff, the Rev. Clyde Reed and his Good News Community Church, who rightly claimed that the Gilbert, AZ sign ordinance discriminated against his free speech by placing heavy restrictions on such signs, while homeowners’ association, political and ideological signage enjoyed far greater permissible square footage and duration. To me, it’s inexplicable the case made it this far through circuit and appellate courts, both of which rendered decisions that the ordinance wasn’t discriminatory and injurious. But, at last, Reed and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which argued his case, achieved their desired outcome.

Does the decision underscore an absolute victory for signage content neutrality? It’s hard to say. Although the decision was unanimous by SCOTUS, a few of the justices offered concurring opinions, which seemingly indicates a full consensus on the disposition of the Reed case, but stopping a bit short of overriding, absolute content neutrality.

In a response to a message I posted conveying the Reed outcome on the Signs of the Times LinkedIn Forum, Alan C. Weinstein, a law professor who’s director of the Master of Legal Studies Program and Law and Public Policy programs at Cleveland’s Marshall College of Law and Cleveland St. Univ.’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, said, “While I don t disagree that the Court was right to strike down the regulation in Reed, I m concerned about how lower courts will apply strict scrutiny to content-based, but non-censorial, sign regulations where government is making a good-faith effort to address substantial government concerns. A good example is ‘directional’ signs at driveways. One would hope that, if that distinction were challenged, a court would simply recognize that there is a compelling governmental interest in traffic safety, and that a ‘directional’ sign at a driveway entrance is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest by making wayfinding much easier for drivers.”

I will write about the Reed decision in greater detail for our August issue. The width and breadth of this victory remains to be seen. Will it be interpreted in future legal cases as an all-encompassing win for signs’ content neutrality, or is it merely one successful salvo in an ongoing struggle? In any case, it was a day for our industry to celebrate. And, to appreciate that one of our branches of government galvanized behind the importance of signage, and the right of all types of organizations to have equal rights to broadcast their messages. In decisions rendered shortly thereafter regarding the Affordable Care Act and gay-marriage rights, SCOTUS returned to partisan divisiveness. But, for a case the addressed fair access to signage and commercial speech, the U.S’s highest court spoke as one.
 

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