Last summer, we reported that the U.S. Supreme Court granted Good News Community Church’s (Church) petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, No. 11-15555 (9th Cir. 2013). The case involves a sign ordinance in the Town of Gilbert that the Church alleges violates its right to free speech.  The Supreme Court heard argument in Reed on Monday, January 12, 2015 and a transcript from the hearing is available here.

Although the justices did not consider a Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act claim, or a specific “religious speech” issue, the Court’s decision will likely have a large impact on how local governments approach sign regulation.  Professor Daniel R. Mandelker[i] of Washington University School of Law, observes,

The case is critical to sign regulation as it applies to land use law, as it deals with the standard of judicial review and should provide direction on how local governments can include exceptions in sign ordinances.

The Church alleged that the ordinance makes impermissible content-based distinctions between “Temporary Directional Signs, Ideological Signs, and Political Signs.”   The Church, which does not have a permanent place of worship, would regularly place signs within the Town indicating the location of its next service.  The Town deemed the signs as “Temporary Directional Signs” which, according to the ordinance, could be erected for less than 24 hours and must be limited in size.  The Church complained that ideological and political signs were granted more favorable treatment.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the sign ordinance, including the distinction between sign types, was content-neutral for purposes of free speech. The court held that the “restrictions are based on objective factors… and do not otherwise consider the substance of the sign. . . .”

At Monday’s hearing, the Church’s attorney David Cortman argued that the Town’s ordinance “discriminates on its face by treating certain signs differently based solely on what they say.” Cortman immediately compared the regulation of the Church’s signs to political signs.  “For example,” argued Cortman, “political signs may be 32 square feet, may be unlimited in number, and may be placed in the right-of-way of the entire town for five months before the election; but the church’s signs can only be one-fifth of that size, only placed in the dark of night, the night before the church service.”

The Church argued that all temporary, private signs must be treated in the same manner.  Justice Kennedy examined the potential result of the Church’s view:  “I guess you see the concern, if an affluent person wants to celebrate a birthday, he can put ‘Happy birthday, Uncle Fred’ as many places as a political sign, and for as long. . . .   ‘Happy birthday, Uncle Fred can have as many signs and for as long as the political campaign.”  “I think—I think that is right,” Cortman responded.

Next, Eric Feigin provided the United States’ position as amicus curiae.  The United States supports neither party, but agrees with the Church that Gilbert’s sign ordinance is unconstitutional.  The United States’ argument focused on the level of judicial review appropriate in the sign-regulation context.  Feigin argued that “a context-specific intermediate scrutiny approach should apply in evaluating speech-permissive exceptions to a sign ordinance where those exceptions are based on the same longstanding traditional rationales that justify the sign ordinance as a whole.”  In other words, application of strict scrutiny to municipal ordinances that increase opportunities for speech (allowing signs that do not interfere with public health or safety) would have an adverse impact on free speech.  Strict judicial review without some degree of deference may, for example, cause municipalities to place a blanket (content-neutral) restriction on more signage than it would have otherwise.

Brian J. Connolly, Attorney with Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti, P.C. in Denver, CO.,[ii] observed that the Court might be interested in revisiting the applicable standard of review: “the fact that the justices’ questioning did not reference a lot of the historical cases on content neutrality (MosleyWardHill, etc.) might suggest that the justices are willing to take a fresh look at the content neutrality doctrine as opposed to trying to wade through past inconsistencies.”

Attorney for Gilbert, Philip Savrin, argued that application of the strict scrutiny standard to ordinances like Gilbert’s will result in municipalities adopting “one size fits all” regulation that will effectively limit speech. “And in order to pass strict scrutiny,” Savrin argued, “the legislatures in these towns and cities across this country would be inclined to ban all signs except those that the First Amendment absolutely allows.”  Explaining the differing treatment of directional signs, Savrin maintained “that directional signs are functionally different from an ideological sign or even from a political sign, that the directional signs do not need to be larger and also that there are more of them…. this town has decided the tradeoff is that they need to be smaller because they need to guide travelers along a route.”

Despite several pointed questions from Justices Scalia and Kagan (and a hearty “My goodness!” from Justice Breyer), Savrin maintained throughout the argument that Gilbert’s ordinance did not make distinctions based on a sign’s content. It is permissible, Savrin argued, that a municipality regulate based on a sign’s function.   Another Court observer noted that the Bench gave a few hints that it was willing to grant municipalities some leniency in outdoor sign regulation, but also concluded that as the argument developed, Gilbert’s attorney was “constantly badgered by questions from the bench, and the Justices’ sympathy for the little church became more apparent.”

For additional analysis, see a guest post by Randall R. Morrison of, which is available at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights.

[i] Professor Mandelker’s relevant publications include Street Graphics and the Law(2004) (American Planning Association, PAS No. 527), a text and model code on regulations for on premise signs that has been widely followed, and Sign Regulation and Free Speech: Spooking the Doppelganger in Trends in Land Use Law from A to Z(American Bar Association, 2001).  His articles on sign regulation include Decision Making in Sign Codes: The Prior Restraint Barrier, Zoning and Planning Law Report, Sept. 2008.

[ii] Mr. Connolly’s article, Environmental Aesthetics and Free Speech: Toward a Consistent Content Neutrality Standard for Outdoor Sign Regulation, 2 Mich.J.Envtl. & Admin. L. 185 (2012) was cited in Reed v. Gilbert briefing papers, including the certiorari petition.  He is also a co-author of The Michigan Sign Guidebook: The Local Planning and Regulation of Signs (Scenic Michigan 2011), which discusses the legal aspects—particularly the First Amendment issues—relating to outdoor sign and advertising regulation, and The Protecting Free Speech and Expression Book, currently in process.

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Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.

Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.