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Reed v. Town of Gilbert:  Signs of (Dis)Content?

  • Author(s): Bhagwat, Ashutosh Avinash
  • et al.

Published Web Location

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2518770
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Abstract

This essay provides a preview of the Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, a case currently (OT 2014) pending in the Supreme Court.  The case concerns the regulation of signs by a town government, and requires the Supreme Court to resolve a three-way circuit split on the question of how to determine whether a law is content-based or content-neutral for First Amendment purposes.  The basic question raised is whether courts should focus on the face of a statute, or on the legislative motivation behind a statute, in making that determination.  I demonstrate that under extant Supreme Court doctrine, the focus should clearly be on the face of the statute, and that under this approach the Town of Gilbert’s sign regulation is (contrary to the Ninth Circuit) clearly content-based.

That the Ninth Circuit erred here is, however, not the end of the matter. More interesting is why it erred. I argue that the Ninth Circuit’s resistance to finding Gilbert’s ordinance content-based was based on subterranean discontent with the most basic principle of modern free speech doctrine – that all content-based regulations are almost always invalid. At heart, what the Gilbert ordinance does is favor signs with political or ideological messages over other signs. Current doctrine says that this is problematic. I question whether that makes any sense. Given the broad consensus that the primary purpose of the First Amendment is to advance democratic self-government, why shouldn’t legislators, and courts, favor speech that directly advances those purposes over other speech, especially when allocating a scarce resource such as a public right of way? Given the brevity of this essay, I only raise but do not seek to answer this question, but argue that it is worthy of further attention by the Court (and of course by scholars).

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