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Supreme Court Strikes a Blow for Free Speech

The United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down a town’s sign regulations in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona because the regulations violated the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. In so doing, the Court reminded Americans and their local governments that First Amendment free speech rights are foundational to our society and government. The court explicitly reiterated that local governments cannot impose sign regulations that treat signs differently based upon what message the sign conveys. Simply put, if someone has to read a sign in order to decide what rules or regulations apply to the sign, then the sign law is presumptively unconstitutional.

This decision should have special resonance for residents of Cheyenne and Laramie. Just last year, each of those Wyoming cities changed their sign regulations because they silenced protected speech based on the same type of categorization that Gilbert, Arizona tried to use against a church.

Like Cheyenne and Laramie, the Town of Gilbert, Arizona adopted a comprehensive sign code that set specific rules for each type of sign that someone might want to display in town. The town set different rules for different types of signs. For example, one set of rules applied to political signs related to a specific election. Another set of rules applied to ideological signs and yet another set of rules applied to signs for garage sales. The case before the Supreme Court focused on a regulation that limited when a church could put up signs that gave drivers directions how to get to Sunday morning services and also imposed separate size limits for these directional signs that did not apply to other signs. Like Cheyenne and Laramie, the basic problem with Gilbert, Arizona’s sign laws was that one had to read the sign’s message to know which set of rules applied to the sign.

According to the Court, if the restrictions in a local sign law that apply to a given sign, “depend entirely on the communicative content of a sign” then the local sign law is a content-based regulation of speech. Courts treat these content-based speech regulations harshly by presuming they are unconditional. Governments that adopt these types of speech restrictions must then defend the regulations by proving they fit into a narrow exception that the Supreme Court has carved out to allow some speech regulations to remain in place. However, history has shown that the Supreme Court generally opposes content-based speech regulations.  The various opinions written by some of the Justices disagreed on why the Town of Gilbert’s sign code was unconstitutional. But the nine Supreme Court Justices unanimously agreed that the regulations violated the U.S. Constitution.

Residents of cities, towns, and counties across Wyoming should carefully examine their own local sign laws. Do local sign regulations apply different rules to temporary election signs than to other temporary signs? Does the local sign code impose different size limits on signs depending on whether the sign is a real estate sign or a political sign? This new Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona Supreme Court decision offers informed, private citizens willing to stand their ground a great opportunity to civilly engage in open-minded, civil communication with public servants to promote liberty and free speech.

Wyoming Liberty Group’s work on sign laws in Cheyenne and Laramie also demonstrates how private citizens can defend free speech rights at home. First, as in Laramie, simply writing a courteous letter to the local governing body or to the editor of the local newspaper alerting the government to the unconstitutional sign laws may be enough to prompt responsible elected officials to remove the unconstitutional provisions. However, the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed confirms arguments by Wyoming Liberty Group attorneys in Ronald Williams’s lawsuit against the City of Cheyenne that categorizing signs then imposing different requirements based on those sign types means government favors some speech over other messages. The results of both the new Reed case and Williams v. City of Cheyenne II prove that courts will protect citizens’ rights if the city or town refuses to act on its own.

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Wednesday, 20 September 2017
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