A local ordinance that blocked an Arizona church from maintaining signs advertising its services was a violation of free speech, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday.
The case involved Clyde Reed, pastor of the Good News Community Church, in Gilbert, Ariz. The town has an ordinance that places time restrictions on outdoor "directional signs" to events while allowing political and ideological signs to be posted longer. Good News Community Church's Sunday services were held at different locations and the church had posted signs with the time and location of that week's services. The church received a citation for exceeding the time limits for such signs and for failing to include an event date on the signs.
Justices concluded that this was, in effect, an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech.
Writing the opinion of the court in Reed v. Gilbert, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the rule wasn't narrowly tailored enough, even accepting that a local government has a compelling interest in regulating public safety.
"The Town has offered no reason to believe that directional signs pose a greater threat to safety than do ideological or political signs," Thomas wrote. "If anything, a sharply worded ideological sign seems more likely to distract a driver than a sign directing the public to a nearby church meeting."
He concluded, "A sign ordinance narrowly tailored to the challenges of protecting the safety of pedestrians, drivers, and passengers—such as warning signs marking hazards on private property, signs directing traffic, or street numbers associated with private houses --- well might survive strict scrutiny. The signs at issue in this case, including political and ideological signs and signs for events, are far removed from those purposes. As discussed above, they are facially content based and are neither justified by traditional safety concerns nor narrowly tailored."
Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan all filed separate concurring opinions.