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Banning Select Signs in Windows of Private Homes Is Unconstitutional; U. S. Supreme Court Says Missouri Ordinance Violates a Homeowner's Free-Speech Rights

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Banning Select Signs in Windows of Private Homes Is Unconstitutional; U. S. Supreme Court Says Missouri Ordinance Violates a Homeowner's Free-Speech Rights

Article excerpt

A CITY ORDINANCE banning signs in the windows of private homes is violative of First Amendment freespeech rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

"A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of our culture and our law ... and that principle has special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person's ability to speak there," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the unanimous court.

The case stems from a sign -- originally placed on the lawn and later moved to the window -- at the Laude, Mo., home of Margaret Gilleo. The sign protested the government's thenpending action in the Persian Gulf war.

Gilleo was accused of violating a city ordinance against posting certain signs. The ordinance contained a number of exemptions, such as "for sale" and "for rent" signs, as well as those at schools and churches and other specific locations.

Both the U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Gilleo.

"While signs are a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause, they pose distinctive problems that are subject to municipalities' police powers," Stevens wrote. "Unlike oral speech, signs take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative use for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation."

However, the Court found that the exemptions allowed by the city actually can make the regulation under-inclusive.

"Thus, an exemption from an otherwise permissible regulation of speech may represent a governmental 'attempt to give one side of a debatable public question an advantage in expressing its views to the people,'" Stevens wrote, quoting from a 1978 Supreme Court decision.

In addition, Stevens noted, "Exemptions from an otherwise legitimate regulation of a medium of speech may be noteworthy for a reason quite apart from the risks of viewpoint and content discrimination: they may diminish the credibility of the government's rationale for restricting speech in the first place....

"Ladue has not imposed a flat ban on signs because it has determined that at least some of them are too vital to be banned," he added.

The prohibition further closes off "a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important. It has totally foreclosed that medium to political, religious, or personal messages."

Stevens commented that, "Although prohibitions foreclosing entire media may be completely free of content or viewpoint discrimination, the danger they pose to the freedom of speech is readily apparent -- by eliminating a common means of speaking, such measures can suppress too much speech."

The city argued that the ban is simply a "time, place or manner" restriction because residents can convey their ideas through other means, but Stevens pointed out that alternative means of expression, such as handbills, are not adequate substitutes.

"Displaying a sign from one's own residence often carries a message quite distinct from placing the same sign somewhere else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means," the Court decided.

Further, Stevens wrote, "Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication.... Even for the affluent, the added costs in money or time of taking out a newspaper advertisement, handing out leaflets on the street, or standing in front of one's house with a hand-held sign may make the difference between participating and not participating in some public debate. …

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