The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in the case of a small church blocked from putting up signs around Gilbert that advertise its Sunday Services.
The case of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert is getting a lot of press today, being billed as a major free-speech or religious rights case.
In fact, it looks more like a case of a church trying to get free advertising by putting signs on public right-of-ways -- which bumps into issues of public safety and visual blight.
Instead of paying a sign-spinner or renting billboard space, Pastor Clyde Reed of the Good News Presbyterian Community Church advertised his church's weekly services by putting up signs in public right-of-ways.
Now, the Founding Fathers meant never have meant to give cities the power to give trade free speech in return for uncluttered roadways, but they didn't know about Kinko's, either. If cities had no restrictions on placing advertisements on sidewalks, there wouldn't be room for walking. Imagine the political signs you see near election time -- then multiply that by 100 or more.
Gilbert allows the announcement of religious services with signs, provided the signs be put up no earlier than 12 hours before the event, and taken down no more than one hour after. Reed hadn't been taking down the signs as quickly as the town wanted and was cited twice in 2005. He reduced the number of signs he put up but still faced threats of more citations from the town. He filed a federal complaint in 2007, with legal help from the Georgia-based Alliance Defending Freedom, and local ADF attorney Kevin Theriot. After being rejected in District Court and at the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals, Good News is making a last-ditch effort at the High Court.
Good News argues that it's not fair to treat religious signs different than other types of signs, like political signs. "Under Gilbert's Code, the content of a sign determines its permissible size, duration, location, and other aspects," the church points out. "For instance, if a sign says 'Vote for McCain,' it can be 32 square feet, if it says 'McCain Should End the War in Afghanistan,' it can be 20 square feet, if it says 'HOA voting drive this Saturday,' it can be 80 square feet, but if it says 'Learn Why Voting Matters, Visit Good News Community Church,' it can be only 6 square feet. If this does not qualify as content-based discrimination, it is difficult to conceive of something that would."
Yet in its 2-1 ruling in 2013, appellate judges noted that the town's sign restrictions "are based on objective factors relevant to the creation of the specific exemption and do not otherwise consider the substance of a sign."
In other words, while it's true that the city makes some judgment about the content of a sign so a decision can be made about what types of restrictions apply, no further examination or discrimination pertaining to the actual words takes place.
So, this isn't actually a religious-rights case. It's a free-speech case, but there's a lot of settled law out there that allows municipalities to restrict the placement of advertisements.
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Last year, in a similar case involving outdoor advertising, gun-rights activist Alan Korwin won the right to put up signs at Phoenix bus shelters promoting a web site and pro-gun message. In the unanimous decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals in that case, the judges ruled that cities have a lot of power in regulating speech on government property. That's not quite the same issue as the Reed case, which involves public right-of-way property, not city billboards of other city-owner facilities -- but could be indicator that this case won't end up going well for Good News Church, despite support from the Obama Administration.
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