Speech and Expression

Time, Place and Manner

City Council v. Taxpayers for Vincent (1984)

466 U.S. 789 (1984)

Vote: 6-3
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Stevens, joined by Burger, White, Powell, Rehnquist, and O’Connor
Dissent: Brennan, joined by Blackmun and Marshall

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 28.04 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibits the posting of signs on public property. The question presented is whether that prohibition abridges appellees’ freedom of speech within the meaning of the First Amendment. In March, 1979, Roland Vincent was a candidate for election to the Los Angeles City Council. A group of his supporters known as Taxpayers for Vincent (Taxpayers) entered into a contract with a political sign service company known as Candidates’ Outdoor Graphics Service (COGS) to fabricate and post signs with Vincent’s name on them. COGS produced 15- by-44-inch cardboard signs and attached them to utility poles at various locations by draping them over crosswires which support the poles and stapling the cardboard together at the bottom. The signs’ message was: “Roland Vincent — City Council.”

Acting under the authority of § 28.04 of the Municipal Code, employees of the city’s Bureau of Street Maintenance routinely removed all posters attached to utility poles and similar objects covered by the ordinance, including the COGS signs. The weekly sign removal report covering the period March 1-March 7, 1979, indicated that among the 1,207 signs removed from public property during that week, 48 were identified as “Roland Vincent” signs. Most of the other signs identified in that report were apparently commercial in character.

In its appeal to this Court, the City challenges the Court of Appeals’ holding that § 28.04 is unconstitutional on its face. Taxpayers and COGS defend that holding, and also contend that the ordinance is unconstitutional as applied to their posting of political campaign signs on the crosswires of utility poles. There are two quite different ways in which a statute or ordinance may be considered invalid “on its face” — either because it is unconstitutional in every conceivable application or because it seeks to prohibit such a broad range of protected conduct that it is unconstitutionally “overbroad.” We shall analyze the “facial” challenges to the ordinance, and then address its specific application to appellees.

[T]he Court did recognize an exception to this general rule for laws that are written so broadly that they may inhibit the constitutionally protected speech of third parties. This “overbreadth” doctrine has its source in Thornhill v. Alabama, (1940). In that case, the Court concluded that the very existence of some broadly written statutes may have such a deterrent effect on free expression that they should be subject to challenge even by a party whose own conduct may be unprotected. The Court has repeatedly held that such a statute may be challenged on its face even though a more narrowly drawn statute would be valid as applied to the party in the case before it …

In the development of the overbreadth doctrine, the Court has been sensitive to the risk that the doctrine itself might sweep so broadly that the exception to ordinary standing requirements would swallow the general rule. In order to decide whether the overbreadth exception is applicable in a particular case, we have weighed the likelihood that the statute’s very existence will inhibit free expression.

Taxpayers and COGS apparently would agree that the prohibition against posting signs on most of the publicly owned objects mentioned in the ordinance is perfectly reasonable. Thus, they do not dispute the City’s power to proscribe the attachment of any handbill or sign to any sidewalk, crosswalk, curb, lamppost, hydrant, or lifesaving equipment. Their position with respect to utility poles is not entirely clear, but they do contend that it is unconstitutional to prohibit the attachment of their cardboard signs to the horizontal crosswires supporting utility poles during a political campaign. They have, in short, failed to identify any significant difference between their claim that the ordinance is invalid on overbreadth grounds and their claim that it is unconstitutional when applied to their political signs. Specifically, Taxpayers and COGS have not attempted to demonstrate that the ordinance applies to any conduct more likely to be protected by the First Amendment than their own crosswire signs … It would therefore be inappropriate in this case to entertain an overbreadth challenge to the ordinance.

In this case, taxpayers and COGS do not dispute that it is within the constitutional power of the City to attempt to improve its appearance, or that this interest is basically unrelated to the suppression of ideas. Therefore the critical inquiries are whether that interest is sufficiently substantial to justify the effect of the ordinance on appellees’ expression, and whether that effect is no greater than necessary to accomplish the City’s purpose.

We turn to the question whether the scope of the restriction on appellees’ expressive activity is substantially broader than necessary to protect the City’s interest in eliminating visual clutter. The incidental restriction on expression which results from the City’s attempt to accomplish such a purpose is considered justified as a reasonable regulation of the time, place, or manner of expression if it is narrowly tailored to serve that interest …

Appellees suggest that the public property covered by the ordinance either is itself a “public forum” for First Amendment purposes or at least should be treated in the same respect as the “public forum” in which the property is located.

Appellees’ reliance on the public forum doctrine is misplaced. They fail to demonstrate the existence of a traditional right of access respecting such items as utility poles for purposes of their communication comparable to that recognized for public streets and parks, and it is clear that

“the First Amendment does not guarantee access to government property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government.” United States Postal Service v. Greenburgh Civic Assns., (1981). Rather, the existence of a right of access to public property and the standard by which limitations upon such a right must be evaluated differ depending on the character of the property at issue … Given our analysis of the legitimate interest served by the ordinance, its viewpoint neutrality, and the availability of alternative channels of communication, the ordinance is certainly constitutional as applied to appellees under this standard.

Finally, Taxpayers and COGS argue that Los Angeles could have written an ordinance that would have had a less severe effect on expressive activity such as theirs by permitting the posting of any kind of sign at any time on some types of public property, or by making a variety of other more specific exceptions to the ordinance: for signs carrying certain types of messages (such as political campaign signs), for signs posted during specific time periods (perhaps during political campaigns), for particular locations (perhaps for areas already cluttered by an excessive number of signs on adjacent private property), or for signs meeting design specifications (such as size or color). Plausible public policy arguments might well be made in support of any such exception, but it by no means follows that it is therefore constitutionally mandated, cf. Singer v. United States, (1965), nor is it clear that some of the suggested exceptions would even be constitutionally permissible …

Any constitutionally mandated exception to the City’s total prohibition against temporary signs on public property would necessarily rest on a judicial determination that the City’s traffic control and safety interests had little or no applicability within the excepted category, and that the City’s interests in esthetics are not sufficiently important to justify the prohibition in that category … [W]e accept the City’s position that it may decide that the esthetic interest in avoiding “visual clutter” justifies a removal of signs creating or increasing that clutter. The findings of the District Court that COGS signs add to the problems addressed by the ordinance and, if permitted to remain, would encourage others to post additional signs, are sufficient to justify application of the ordinance to these appellees …

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that Court.

It is so ordered.

Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1992)

491 U.S. 781 (1992)

Vote: 6-3
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Kennedy, joined by Rehnquist, White, O’Connor, Scalia
Concurrence: Blackmun
Dissent: Marshall, joined by Brennan, Stevens

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the southeast portion of New York City’s Central Park, about 10 blocks upward from the park’s beginning point at 59th Street, there is an amphitheater and stage structure known as the Naumberg Acoustic Bandshell. The bandshell faces west across the remaining width of the park. In close proximity to the bandshell, and lying within the directional path of its sound, is a grassy open area called the Sheep Meadow. The city has designated the Sheep Meadow as a quiet area for passive recreations like reclining, walking, and reading. Just beyond the park, and also within the potential sound range of the bandshell, are the apartments and residences of Central Park West.

This case arises from the city’s attempt to regulate the volume of amplified music at the bandshell so the performances are satisfactory to the audience without intruding upon those who use the Sheep Meadow or live on Central Park West and in its vicinity.

The city’s regulation requires bandshell performers to use sound amplification equipment and a sound technician provided by the city. The challenge to this volume control technique comes from the sponsor of a rock concert. The trial court sustained the noise control measures, but the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. We granted certiorari to resolve the important First Amendment issues presented by the case.

The principal inquiry in determining content-neutrality, in speech cases generally and in time, place, or manner cases in particular, is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of disagreement with the message it conveys. The government’s purpose is the controlling consideration. A regulation that serves purposes unrelated to the content of expression is deemed neutral, even if it has an incidental effect on some speakers or messages, but not others. See Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., (1986). Government regulation of expressive activity is content-neutral so long as it is “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.” Clark v Comm. For Creative Non-Violence, (1984).

The principal justification for the sound amplification guideline is the city’s desire to control noise levels at bandshell events, in order to retain the character of the Sheep Meadow and its more sedate activities, and to avoid undue intrusion into residential areas and other areas of the park. This justification for the guideline “ha[s] nothing to do with content,” Boos v. Barry, supra, (1988), and it satisfies the requirement that time, place, or manner regulations be content-neutral.

While respondent’s arguments that the government may not interfere with artistic judgment may have much force in other contexts, they are inapplicable to the facts of this case. The city has disclaimed in express terms any interest in imposing its own view of appropriate sound mix on performers. To the contrary, as the District Court found, the city requires its sound technician to defer to the wishes of event sponsors concerning sound mix. On this record, the city’s concern with sound quality extends only to the clearly content-neutral goals of ensuring adequate sound amplification and avoiding the volume problems associated with inadequate sound mix. Any governmental attempt to serve purely aesthetic goals by imposing subjective standards of acceptable sound mix on performers would raise serious First Amendment concerns, but this case provides us with no opportunity to address those questions. As related above, the District Court found that the city’s equipment and its sound technician could meet all of the standards requested by the performers, including RAR.

The court squarely rejected respondent’s claim that the city’s “technician is not able properly to implement a sponsor’s instructions as to sound quality or mix,” finding that “[n]o evidence to that effect was offered at trial; as noted, the evidence is to the contrary.” In view of these findings, which were not disturbed by the Court of Appeals, we must conclude that the city’s guideline has no material impact on any performer’s ability to exercise complete artistic control over sound quality. Since the guideline allows the city to control volume without interfering with the performer’s desired sound mix, it is not “substantially broader than necessary” to achieve the city’s legitimate ends, City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent (1984), and thus it satisfies the requirement of narrow tailoring.

The final requirement, that the guideline leave open ample alternative channels of communication, is easily met. Indeed, in this respect the guideline is far less restrictive than regulations we have upheld in other cases, for it does not attempt to ban any particular manner or type of expression at a given place or time. Rather, the guideline continues to permit expressive activity in the bandshell, and has no effect on the quantity or content of that expression beyond regulating the extent of amplification. That the city’s limitations on volume may reduce to some degree the potential audience for respondent’s speech is of no consequence, for there has been no showing that the remaining avenues of communication are inadequate.

The city’s sound amplification guideline is narrowly tailored to serve the substantial and content-neutral governmental interests of avoiding excessive sound volume and providing sufficient amplification within the bandshell concert-ground, and the guideline leaves open ample channels of communication.

Accordingly, it is valid under the First Amendment as a reasonable regulation of the place and manner of expression. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is


Hill v. CO (2000)

530 U.S. 703 (2000)

Vote: 6-3
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Stevens, joined by Rehnquist, O’Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Concurrence: Souter, joined by O’Connor, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent: Scalia, joined by Thomas
Dissent: Kennedy

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue is the constitutionality of a 1993 Colorado statute that regulates speech-related conduct within 100 feet of the entrance to any health care facility. The specific section of the statute that is challenged makes it unlawful within the regulated areas for any person to “knowingly approach” within eight feet of another person, without that person’s consent, “for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person. …” Although the statute prohibits speakers from approaching unwilling listeners, it does not require a standing speaker to move away from anyone passing by. Nor does it place any restriction on the content of any message that anyone may wish to communicate to anyone else, either inside or outside the regulated areas. It does, however, make it more difficult to give unwanted advice, particularly in the form of a handbill or leaflet, to persons entering or leaving medical facilities.

The question is whether the First Amendment rights of the speaker are abridged by the protection the statute provides for the unwilling listener.

Watchtower v. Stratton (2002)

536 U.S. 150 (2002)

Vote: 8-1
Majority: Stevens, joined by O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Concurrence: Breyer, joined by Souter, Ginsburg
Concurrence: Scalia (in judgment), joined by Thomas
Dissent: Rehnquist

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners contend that a village ordinance making it a misdemeanor to engage in door-to-door advocacy without first registering with the mayor and receiving a permit violates the First Amendment. Through this facial challenge, we consider the door-to-door canvassing regulation not only as it applies to religious proselytizing, but also to anonymous political speech and the distribution of handbills.

Petitioner … coordinates the preaching activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the United States and publishes Bibles and religious periodicals that are widely distributed. Petitioner … supervises the activities of approximately 59 members in a part of Ohio that includes the Village of Stratton (Village). Petitioners offer religious literature without cost to anyone interested in reading it. They allege that they do not solicit contributions or orders for the sale of merchandise or services, but they do accept donations.

District of Ohio, seeking an injunction against the enforcement of several sections of Ordinance No. 1998-5 regulating uninvited peddling and solicitation on private property in the Village. Petitioners’ complaint alleged that the ordinance violated several constitutional rights, including the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the freedom of the press.

We granted certiorari to decide the following question:

“Does a municipal ordinance that requires one to obtain a permit prior to engaging in the door-to-door advocacy of a political cause and to display upon demand the permit, which contains one’s name, violate the First Amendment protection accorded to anonymous pamphleteering or discourse 7[?]”

The Village argues that three interests are served by its ordinance: the prevention of fraud, the prevention of crime, and the protection of residents’ privacy. We have no difficulty concluding, in light of our precedent, that these are important interests that the Village may seek to safeguard through some form of regulation of solicitation activity. We must also look, however, to the amount of speech covered by the ordinance and whether there is an appropriate balance between the affected speech and the governmental interests that the ordinance purports to serve.

… [T]he Village’s administration of its ordinance unquestionably demonstrates that the provisions apply to a significant number of noncommercial “canvassers” promoting a wide variety of “causes.” Indeed, on the “No Solicitation Forms” provided to the residents, the canvassers include “Camp Fire Girls,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “Political Candidates,” “Trick or Treaters during Halloween Season,” and “Persons Affiliated with Stratton Church.” The ordinance unquestionably applies, not only to religious causes, but to political activity as well. …

The mere fact that the ordinance covers so much speech raises constitutional concerns. It is offensive-not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society-that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so. Even if the issuance of permits by the mayor’s office is a ministerial task that is performed promptly and at no cost to the applicant, a law requiring a permit to engage in such speech constitutes a dramatic departure from our national heritage and constitutional tradition. Three obvious examples illustrate the pernicious effect of such a permit requirement.

First, as our cases involving distribution of unsigned handbills demonstrate, there are a significant number of persons who support causes anonymously … The requirement that a canvasser must be identified in a permit application filed in the mayor’s office and available for public inspection necessarily results in a surrender of that anonymity … In the Village, strangers to the resident certainly maintain their anonymity, and the ordinance may preclude such persons from canvassing for unpopular causes. Such preclusion may well be justified in some situations-for example, by the special state interest in protecting the integrity of a ballot-initiative processor by the interest in preventing fraudulent commercial transactions. The Village ordinance, however, sweeps more broadly, covering unpopular causes unrelated to commercial transactions or to any special interest in protecting the electoral process.

Second, requiring a permit as a prior condition on the exercise of the right to speak imposes an objective burden on some speech of citizens holding religious or patriotic views. As our World War II-era cases dramatically demonstrate, there are a significant number of persons whose religious scruples will prevent them from applying for such a license. There are no doubt other patriotic citizens, who have such firm convictions about their constitutional right to engage in uninhibited debate in the context of door-to-door advocacy, that they would prefer silence to speech licensed by a petty official.

Third, there is a significant amount of spontaneous speech that is effectively banned by the ordinance. A person who made a decision on a holiday or a weekend to take an active part in a political campaign could not begin to pass out handbills until after he or she obtained the required permit. Even a spontaneous decision to go across the street and urge a neighbor to vote against the mayor could not lawfully be implemented without first obtaining the mayor’s permission.

The rhetoric used in the World War II-era opinions that repeatedly saved petitioners’ coreligionists from petty prosecutions reflected the Court’s evaluation of the First Amendment freedoms that are implicated in this case. The value judgment that then motivated a united democratic people fighting to defend those very freedoms from totalitarian attack is unchanged. It motivates our decision today.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Snyder v. Phelps (2011)

562 U.S. 443 (2011)

Vote: 8-1
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
Concurrence: Breyer
Dissent: Alito

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury held members of the Westboro Baptist Church liable for millions of dollars in damages for picketing near a soldier’s funeral service. The picket signs reflected the church’s view that the United States is overly tolerant of sin and that God kills American soldiers as punishment. The question presented is whether the First Amendment shields the church members from tort liability for their speech in this case.

The church had notified the authorities in advance of its intent to picket at the time of the funeral, and the picketers complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration. The picketing took place within a 10- by 25-foot plot of public land adjacent to a public street, behind a temporary fence. That plot was approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held. Several buildings separated the picket site from the church. The Westboro picketers displayed their signs for about 30 minutes before the funeral began and sang hymns and recited Bible verses. None of the picketers entered church property or went to the cemetery. They did not yell or use profanity, and there was no violence associated with the picketing.

Westboro’s primary argument was that the church was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the First Amendment fully protected Westboro’s speech. The Court of Appeals agreed. The court reviewed the picket signs and concluded that Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.

We granted certiorari.

Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding Westboro liable for its speech in this case turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case.”[S]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ … is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.’ ” Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, (1978)). The First Amendment reflects “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (1964).

The “content” of Westboro’s signs plainly relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of “purely private concern.” Dun & Bradstreet, supra. The placards read “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” [and] “Fag Troops …” [other examples omitted]. While these messages may fall short of refined social or political commentary, the issues they highlight—the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy—are matters of public import. The signs certainly convey Westboro’s position on those issues, in a manner designed, unlike the private speech in Dun & Bradstreet, to reach as broad a public audience as possible. And even if a few of the signs—such as “You’re Going to Hell” and “God Hates You”—were viewed as containing messages related to Matthew Snyder or the Snyders specifically, that would not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues.

We have identified a few limited situations where the location of targeted picketing can be regulated under provisions that the Court has determined to be content neutral.

Simply put, the church members had the right to be where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity, or violence.

The record confirms that any distress occasioned by Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro said that exposed it to tort damages.

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, (1989). Indeed, “the point of all speech protection … is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.” Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., (1995).

Westboro believes that America is morally flawed; many Americans might feel the same about Westboro. Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. The speech was indeed planned to coincide with Matthew Snyder’s funeral, but did not itself disrupt that funeral, and Westboro’s choice to conduct its picketing at that time and place did not alter the nature of its speech.

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

McCullen v. Coakley (2014)

573 U.S. 464 (2014)

Vote: 9-0
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Roberts, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
Concurrence: Scalia (in judgment), joined by Kennedy, Thomas
Concurrence: Alito (in judgment)

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

A Massachusetts statute makes it a crime to knowingly stand on a “public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any place, other than a hospital, where abortions are performed. Petitioners are individuals who approach and talk to women outside such facilities, attempting to dissuade them from having abortions. The statute prevents petitioners from doing so near the facilities’ entrances. The question presented is whether the statute violates the First Amendment.

In January 2008, petitioners sued Attorney General Coakley and other Commonwealth officials. They sought to enjoin enforcement of the Act, alleging that it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, both on its face and as applied to them. The District Court denied petitioners’ facial challenge after a bench trial based on a stipulated record.

We granted certiorari.

By its very terms, the Massachusetts Act regulates access to “public way[s]” and “sidewalk[s].” Such areas occupy a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection” because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate. United States v. Grace, (1983). These places—which we have labeled “traditional public fora”—“ ‘have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.’ ” Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, (2009) (quoting Perry Ed. Assn. v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn., (1983) ).

[T]raditional public fora are areas that have historically been open to the public for speech activities. Thus, even though the Act says nothing about speech on its face, there is no doubt—and respondents do not dispute—that it restricts access to traditional public fora and is therefore subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

Consistent with the traditionally open character of public streets and sidewalks, we have held that the government’s ability to restrict speech in such locations is “very limited.” Grace, supra, at 177. In particular, the guiding First Amendment principle that the “government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content” applies with full force in a traditional public forum. Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, (1972). As a general rule, in such a forum the government may not “selectively … shield the public from some kinds of speech on the ground that they are more offensive than others.” Erznoznik v. Jacksonville, (1975).

We have, however, afforded the government somewhat wider leeway to regulate features of speech unrelated to its content.”[E]ven in a public forum the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions ‘are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.’” Ward, (quoting Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, (1984)).

While the parties agree that this test supplies the proper framework for assessing the constitutionality of the Massachusetts Act, they disagree about whether the Act satisfies the test’s three requirements.

Petitioners contend that the Act is not content neutral for two independent reasons: First, they argue that it discriminates against abortion-related speech because it establishes buffer zones only at clinics that perform abortions. Second, petitioners contend that the Act, by exempting clinic employees and agents, favors one viewpoint about abortion over the other. If either of these arguments is correct, then the Act must satisfy strict scrutiny—that is, it must be the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest. See United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., (2000). Respondents do not argue that the Act can survive this exacting standard.

It is true, of course, that by limiting the buffer zones to abortion clinics, the Act has the “inevitable effect” of restricting abortion-related speech more than speech on other subjects. But a facially neutral law does not become content based simply because it may disproportionately affect speech on certain topics. On the contrary, “[a] regulation that serves purposes unrelated to the content of expression is deemed neutral, even if it has an incidental effect on some speakers or messages but not others.” Ward, supra.

… [T]he Act would not be content neutral if it were concerned with undesirable effects that arise from “the direct impact of speech on its audience” or “[l]isteners’ reactions to speech.” If, for example, the speech outside Massachusetts abortion clinics caused offense or made listeners uncomfortable, such offense or discomfort would not give the Commonwealth a content-neutral justification to restrict the speech. All of the problems identified by the Commonwealth here, however, arise irrespective of any listener’s reactions. Whether or not a single person reacts to abortion protestors’ chants or petitioners’ counseling, large crowds outside abortion clinics can still compromise public safety, impede access, and obstruct sidewalks.

We thus conclude that the Act is neither content nor viewpoint based and therefore need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny.

The buffer zones have … made it substantially more difficult for petitioners to distribute literature to arriving patients. As explained, because petitioners in Boston cannot readily identify patients before they enter the zone, they often cannot approach them in time to place literature near their hands—the most effective means of getting the patients to accept it. In Worcester and Springfield, the zones have pushed petitioners so far back from the clinics’ driveways that they can no longer even attempt to offer literature as drivers turn into the parking lots. In short, the Act operates to deprive petitioners of their two primary methods of communicating with patients.

[R]espondents suggest that, at the Worcester and Springfield clinics, petitioners are prevented from communicating with patients not by the buffer zones but by the fact that most patients arrive by car and park in the clinics’ private lots. It is true that the layout of the two clinics would prevent petitioners from approaching the clinics’ doorways, even without the buffer zones. But petitioners do not claim a right to trespass on the clinics’ property. They instead claim a right to stand on the public sidewalks by the driveway as cars turn into the parking lot. Before the buffer zones, they could do so. Now they must stand a substantial distance away. The Act alone is responsible for that restriction on their ability to convey their message.

Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015)

576 U.S. 155 (2015)

Vote: 9-0
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Thomas, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, Sotomayor
Concurrence: Alito, joined by Kennedy, Sotomayor
Concurrence: Breyer (in judgment)
Concurrence: Kagan (in judgment), joined by Ginsburg, Breyer

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

The town of Gilbert, Arizona (or Town), has adopted a comprehensive code governing the manner in which people may display outdoor signs. The Sign Code identifies various categories of signs based on the type of information they convey, then subjects each category to different restrictions. One of the categories is “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to a Qualifying Event,” loosely defined as signs directing the public to a meeting of a nonprofit group. The Code imposes more stringent restrictions on these signs than it does on signs conveying other messages. We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.

Petitioners Good News Community Church (Church) and its pastor, Clyde Reed, wish to advertise the time and location of their Sunday church services. The Church is a small, cash-strapped entity that owns no building, so it holds its services at elementary schools or other locations in or near the Town. In order to inform the public about its services, which are held in a variety of different locations, the Church began placing 15 to 20 temporary signs around the Town, frequently in the public right-of-way abutting the street. The signs typically displayed the Church’s name, along with the time and location of the upcoming service. Church members would post the signs early in the day on Saturday and then remove them around midday on Sunday. The display of these signs requires little money and manpower, and thus has proved to be an economical and effective way for the Church to let the community know where its services are being held each week.

This practice caught the attention of the Town’s Sign Code compliance manager, who twice cited the Church for violating the Code. The first citation noted that the Church exceeded the time limits for displaying its temporary directional signs. The second citation referred to the same problem, along with the Church’s failure to include the date of the event on the signs. Town officials even confiscated one of the Church’s signs, which Reed had to retrieve from the municipal offices.

Reed contacted the Sign Code Compliance Department in an attempt to reach an accommodation. His efforts proved unsuccessful. The Town’s Code compliance manager informed the Church that there would be “no leniency under the Code” and promised to punish any future violations …

On remand, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town. The Court of Appeals again affirmed, holding that the Code’s sign categories were content neutral …

We granted certiorari, and now reverse.

Content-based laws—those that target speech based on its communicative content—are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests. R. A. V. v. St. Paul, (1992) [other citations omitted] …

The Town’s Sign Code is content based on its face. It defines “Temporary Directional Signs” on the basis of whether a sign conveys the message of directing the public to church or some other “qualifying event.” It defines “Political Signs” on the basis of whether a sign’s message is “designed to influence the outcome of an election.” And it defines “Ideological Signs” on the basis of whether a sign “communicat[es] a message or ideas” that do not fit within the Code’s other categories.  It then subjects each of these categories to different restrictions …

A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained” in the regulated speech. Cincinnati v. Discovery NetworkInc., (1993) …

… [A] speech regulation targeted at specific subject matter is content based even if it does not discriminate among viewpoints within that subject matter. For example, a law banning the use of sound trucks for political speech—and only political speech—would be a content-based regulation, even if it imposed no limits on the political viewpoints that could be expressed. See Discovery Network, supra. The Town’s Sign Code likewise singles out specific subject matter for differential treatment, even if it does not target viewpoints within that subject matter. Ideological messages are given more favorable treatment than messages concerning a political candidate, which are themselves given more favorable treatment than messages announcing an assembly of like-minded individuals. That is a paradigmatic example of content-based discrimination.

Our decision today will not prevent governments from enacting effective sign laws … Not “all distinctions” are subject to strict scrutiny, only content-based ones are. Laws that are content neutral are instead subject to lesser scrutiny.

The Town has ample content-neutral options available to resolve problems with safety and aesthetics. For example, its current Code regulates many aspects of signs that have nothing to do with a sign’s message: size, building materials, lighting, moving parts, and portability. And on public property, the Town may go a long way toward entirely forbidding the posting of signs, so long as it does so in an evenhanded, content-neutral manner …

We acknowledge that a city might reasonably view the general regulation of signs as necessary because signs “take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative uses for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation.” City of Ladue v. Gilleo, (1994). At the same time, the presence of certain signs may be essential, both for vehicles and pedestrians, to guide traffic or to identify hazards and ensure safety. 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.

We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky (2018)

585 U.S. ___ (2018)

Vote: 7-2
Decision: Reversed
Majority: Roberts, joined by Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch
Dissent: Sotomayor, joined by Breyer

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under Minnesota law, voters may not wear a political badge, political button, or anything bearing political insignia inside a polling place on Election Day. The question presented is whether this ban violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Petitioner Minnesota Voters Alliance (MVA) is a nonprofit organization that “seeks better government through election reforms.” Petitioner Andrew Cilek is a registered voter in Hennepin County and the executive director of MVA; petitioner Susan Jeffers served in 2010 as a Ramsey County election judge. Five days before the November 2010 election, MVA, Jeffers, and other likeminded groups and individuals filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court challenging the political apparel ban on First Amendment grounds. The groups—calling themselves “Election Integrity Watch” (EIW)—planned to have supporters wear buttons to the polls printed with the words “Please I. D. Me,” a picture of an eye, and a telephone number and web address for EIW.

The First Amendment prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” Minnesota’s ban on wearing any “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” plainly restricts a form of expression within the protection of the First Amendment.

But the ban applies only in a specific location: the interior of a polling place. It therefore implicates our “ ‘forum based’ approach for assessing restrictions that the government seeks to place on the use of its property.” International Soc. for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee, (1992) (ISKCON) …

This Court employs a distinct standard of review to assess speech restrictions in nonpublic forums because the government, “no less than a private owner of property,” retains the “power to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated.” Adderley v. Florida, (1966).”Nothing in the Constitution requires the Government freely to grant access to all who wish to exercise their right to free speech on every type of Government property without regard to the nature of the property or to the disruption that might be caused by the speaker’s activities.” Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., (1985). Accordingly, our decisions have long recognized that the government may impose some content-based restrictions on speech in nonpublic forums, including restrictions that exclude political advocates and forms of political advocacy. See Greer v. Spock, (1976) [other citations omitted].

A polling place in Minnesota qualifies as a nonpublic forum. It is, at least on Election Day, government-controlled property set aside for the sole purpose of voting. The space is “a special enclave, subject to greater restriction.” ISKCON

We therefore evaluate MVA’s First Amendment challenge under the nonpublic forum standard. The text of the apparel ban makes no distinction based on the speaker’s political persuasion, so MVA does not claim that the ban discriminates on the basis of viewpoint on its face. The question accordingly is whether Minnesota’s ban on political apparel is “reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum”: voting.

… [W]e see no basis for rejecting Minnesota’s determination that some forms of advocacy should be excluded from the polling place, to set it aside as “an island of calm in which voters can peacefully contemplate their choices.” Casting a vote is a weighty civic act, akin to a jury’s return of a verdict, or a representative’s vote on a piece of legislation. It is a time for choosing, not campaigning. The State may reasonably decide that the interior of the polling place should reflect that distinction.

Thus, in light of the special purpose of the polling place itself, Minnesota may choose to prohibit certain apparel there because of the message it conveys, so that voters may focus on the important decisions immediately at hand.

But the State must draw a reasonable line. Although there is no requirement of narrow tailoring in a nonpublic forum, the State must be able to articulate some sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out. See Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense Fund, (1985). Here, the unmoored use of the term “political” in the Minnesota law, combined with haphazard interpretations the State has provided in official guidance and representations to this Court, cause Minnesota’s restriction to fail even this forgiving test.

[The statute] does not define the term “political.” And the word can be expansive. It can encompass anything “of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of governmental affairs,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1755 (2002), or anything “[o]f, relating to, or dealing with the structure or affairs of government, politics, or the state,” American Heritage Dictionary 1401 (3d ed. 1996). Under a literal reading of those definitions, a button or T-shirt merely imploring others to “Vote!” could qualify.

The State argues that the apparel ban should not be read so broadly. According to the State, the statute does not prohibit “any conceivably ‘political’ message” or cover “all ‘political’ speech, broadly construed.” Instead, the State interprets the ban to proscribe “only words and symbols that an objectively reasonable observer would perceive as conveying a message about the electoral choices at issue in [the] polling place.”

A rule whose fair enforcement requires an election judge to maintain a mental index of the platforms and positions of every candidate and party on the ballot is not reasonable. Candidates for statewide and federal office and major political parties can be expected to take positions on a wide array of subjects of local and national import … Would a “Support Our Troops” shirt be banned, if one of the candidates or parties had expressed a view on military funding or aid for veterans? What about a “#MeToo” shirt, referencing the movement to increase awareness of sexual harassment and assault? At oral argument, the State indicated that the ban would cover such an item if a candidate had “brought up” the topic.

Cases like this “present[ ] us with a particularly difficult reconciliation: the accommodation of the right to engage in political discourse with the right to vote.” Burson v. Freeman, (1992) (plurality opinion). Minnesota, like other States, has sought to strike the balance in a way that affords the voter the opportunity to exercise his civic duty in a setting removed from the clamor and din of electioneering. While that choice is generally worthy of our respect, Minnesota has not supported its good intentions with a law capable of reasoned application.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


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