On the docket: Reed v. Town of Gilbert

By Cara L. Gallagher, weekend contributor

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Gilbert, Arizona’s sign regulations.




A preview of a case that will be heard tomorrow in the SCOTUS: Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Question: Can a town impose more regulations on religious signs posted on public streets than political, ideological, or property signs?

10-cent explanation: The town of Gilbert, Arizona has municipal codes about when, where, and for how long signs can be displayed in town. If you’re a candidate running for elected office, your campaign sign can remain in public for an unlimited amount of time. If the town posts signs reminding citizens what day to vote, they can be posted four and a half months prior to the date and up to 15 days after. Got a sign advertising an HOA meeting? Those can stay out 30 days before the meeting and must be taken down 48 hours after. But if the pastor of a local church in Gilbert, adorably called the Good News Community Church, wants to put signs out to remind people of upcoming services, he has only 12 hours before the event to display it and must take it down within an hour after the event or risk penalties. There are also regulations on the sizes of the signs. Good News signs can’t be more than six square feet whereas HOA signs can be 80 square feet, political signs 32 square feet, and ideological signs 20 square feet. These regulations also apply to signs for nonprofit, charitable, and educational organizations.

The question the Court will answer on Monday, January 12th, 2015 is whether or not Gilbert’s sign codes violate the church’s 1st Amendment rights protecting free speech. This case brings to mind a recent decision about buffer zones and the free speech rights of protestors outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts (McCullen v. Coakley).  Massachusetts’ law banning protestors from crossing the 35-foot buffer zone was struck down and the majority (8-1) ruled, “Government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”  In Reed, as in McCullen, the Court is asked to decide whether laws restricting speech are permissible because they are content-neutral.  In order to determine what kind of sign and thus the length of time it can be posted, a Gilbert official must read the content, interpret the message, and make the call. The Court almost never supports empowering agents of government with the right to interpret and make such decisions. No doubt attorneys for Good News will argue Gilbert’s restrictions on religious signs is akin to a government entity giving preferential treatment to political and secular groups over religious groups.

Noisy street signs – political, ideological, religious, commercial, or HOA – are a nuisance. Gilbert’s sign restrictions are intended to mitigate the proliferation of such distractions. Less distracted drivers mean fewer accidents and a safer community. They’ll likely argue in Court that greater time allowances and bigger signs for political and noncommercial signs are because those messages serve a wider audience of voting and home owning citizens, unlike the Church’s intended audience, which is smaller, encompassing its parishioners and, perhaps, the religiously unaffiliated. Gilbert has support having won in the district court and the 9th Circuit affirmed.

An hour hardly seems enough time for a pastor of a small church to finish his sermon, say goodbye to his flock, and make it out there in time to grab the signs before receiving a ticket from Gilbert police for violating the sign code. Frankly, Gilbert’s inconsistent sign regulations make a reversal of the lower court decisions and win seem like a lock for the church. My guess is that Good News will receive very good news in the Court’s decision this spring. [Zing!]

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.


40 thoughts on “On the docket: Reed v. Town of Gilbert”

  1. No, Olly, I believe government regulation of speech is not okay anytime (and shouting “fire” in a theatre is not a matter of free speech, in my opinion). To do something that infringes on the rights of someone else is not alright, either. Just because someone expresses ideas that are not popular, or are even despicable by most standards, they still should be able to express them. It’s when they go beyond speech and cause real injury or harm to others that is the problem. And even though I think all political signs are eyesores and I’m personally glad when they are gone, I am against the government regulating them. People should take signs like that down because they have pride in their city and it’s the right thing to do. I understand that is not how people operate, but that’s my opinion.

    Nick, I know. I recognize your humor, and I find it amusing. Besides, you’re entitled to your opinions, even when I’m the target of them, and even when you’re wrong. 🙂

    Yeah, Gary T, I know the Gilbert PD’s reputation, too. I read the stories in Freedoms Phoenix dot com (I created the original source code for the site for about eight years) about how police are killing someone someplace for trivial things every day. Police over-reacting and over-reaching their authority is increasing all the time. It’s a symptom of an over-populating world that is outgrowing government’s power to protect and regulate without using force and violence. It’s something that will only continue to get worse while the current political systems are in place.

  2. After several yrs of asking why churches can’t post availablity signs near off ramps (Denny’s, KFC, Hilton, Comfort Inn) I gave up, believe it or not. After all, there is respite, food …especially at Episcopal churches’ coffee hour…., etc..

    We were willing to comply with unofficial estimates for costs to comply with the substantial standards.. Sooooo instead, up went a very large sign inside our property line in sight of a major 4 lane highway. Then we illuminated it. Lettering is “60 MPH” readable and right next to the American flag on a pole and flying high and a church pennant below the flag during services. Sign has been there for over 8 yrs. Nary a peep so far.

  3. The graphic demonstrating the time differences allowed is pretty damning.

    What’s in it for the town to defend such stupidity all the way to DC?
    Do they have money to burn?
    Who’s paying the bill?

  4. Eleazer, We have a great new weekend blogger, indeed. She is a breath of fresh air.

  5. I live in Gilbert and the issue is that as a rapidly growing and now re-growing area, churches use schools, closed grocery stores, etc. The signs they are concerned about are the same ones the real estate agents put out for open houses, etc and have to be taken down in the same time frame.

    HOA signs are not quite as liberal as stated. Signs for activities of the HOA can only be up a week ahead of time and at one time it was 24 hours. My HOA holds two garage sales a year and we advertise throughout the Valley. We can only put up our community sign the day before.

  6. Tyger:

    You are wrong.
    The Town of Gilbert WILL kill those who do not take the sign down in time.
    Granted they may not do it directly for that, but much like it is not a capital offense to sell single cigarettes on the streets of NYC, Eric Garner died from being assaulted by police stopping him from what they perceived as him doing it.
    As I heard quoted recently, don’t ever issue a govt regulation that you would not have a person killed over the enforcement of it.
    And Gilbert would kill as readily for this as any other zoning regulation that is not adhered to.

  7. Tyger, It was just a good natured ball bust about Phoenix folks just starting to walk upright. I know you have been using tools and fire for some time now.

  8. Most schools and churches I pass by have a permanent sign advertising the name and what it is, an elementary school or a thumper this or a thumper that. There is typically a ‘Home of the Bears’ etc or ‘Go with god’, etc. Below that there is a place where PTA meetings can be displayed or in the case of a church, meeting and event times and other info. These ‘signs’ are typically a combination of a permanent fixture, which must have been approved at some time, and interchangeable letters. Other than that, placards blasting out Susie this or that is playing in this or that play or Jesus saves on Sunday, could get to be annoying after a while.

    People running for office should not be able to paper the sides of roads indefinitely. There should be a reasonable prelude to an election and when it is over, take down the signs. If people don’t know who and what they are voting for within a reasonable amount of time, four months or so, then they shouldn’t be voting. They are the ones that used to be bought for a glass of whiskey at the door.

    However, signs on church property should be, if reasonable, i.e. not blocking the view to the oncoming car, treated with more leniency than 12 hours. It seems that at one time there were some atheists in City Hall.

  9. How truly refreshing.

    I had but all given up on reading “weekend warrior” posts as not only the content has been severely slanted in a liberal direction but the careful selection of pieces have been as well.

    Previously, the selection of this type of case would have never darkened the glare of the screen as it would not have advanced the cause.

    Kudo’s to Cara L. Gallagher and to Jonathan Turley.

  10. The Town of Gilbert doesn’t kill people who leave a sign out too long, no matter what religious or political message it may carry. Not yet, anyway.

  11. Replace “The Town of Gilbert” with “Islamic Extremists”; what would you say then about the regulation of speech?

  12. Nick, I’ve lived in Phoenix since right after they invented dirt out in the desert here. The Gilbert High School mascots are the Tigers, so I’ve even joked that I’m THE Gilbert Tyger. While the area has its share of knuckle-draggers, it’s no worse than most other places, and a whole lot better than some.

    I will concede that being one of the last territories to become a state, the frontier attitude (more libertarian, freedom-oriented) still prevails in Arizona, much to my satisfaction. Unfortunately, that is gradually slipping away as the population continues to explode with government-control freaks taking over everywhere.

    The real problem is letting governments have control over things that they shouldn’t have anything to do with. I hate election signs being all over the place as much as anyone, and I admit to being pleased that they are required to be taken down in a reasonable length of time, but if a pastor has signs on the church property announcing a sermon or other event, I don’t see where the government should regulate that. One might argue that a religious sign is ideological, so maybe they should take that position.

    As an Atheist, I would be in favor of that, since the government could interpret a sign I might post somewhere about a meeting of Atheists as being for a religious event. Everyone should have the right to express their religious and political views, or any ideological or philosophical views, equally to anyone else. As things are going, the only ones who will be able to post temporary signs in the future will be those rich enough to pay off the government official under the table someway.

  13. the majority (8-1) ruled, “Government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”

    What about the torture protesters who were removed and arrested for carrying signs in front of Cheney’s house?

  14. I would agree that the church should be successful. If the time frame was a little more reasonable, ths church’s chances would not be as favorable.

  15. Interesting; let’s see if all this love of the first amendment remains when it involves Christianity.

  16. Interesting piece. I can see one or more of the justices scoffing @ the “safety” issue as a horseshit pretext, which it is. There are SO MANY driver distractions more problematic than GD signs. But, the govt. is quick to take away first amendment rights in the phony name of safety. Doesn’t pass the smell test. But what do you expect from folks in the Phoenix area, they just started walking upright there a few years ago.

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