SCOTUS rulings: Of signs and license plates

Friday, June 19, 2015
Charlie Butts (

It took eight years of legal pursuit, but a church in Gilbert, Arizona, has won the day in a Supreme Court case. However, a group in Texas wasn't as fortunate in the high court's ruling in their case.

The Good News Community Church sued the town of Gilbert because of restrictions on its signs. Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jeremy Tedesco explains that the town's sign ordinance lumped churches in with a disfavored group of sign-placers.

Tedesco, Jeremy (ADF)"So political signs got incredibly good treatment, [as did] ideological signs, homeowners association signs," says the attorney. "They had church signs lumped in with certain other non-profit organizations, and [they] just heavily regulated them almost to the extent they couldn't even place signs."

Under the ordinance, Good News Community Church was allowed to post a sign advertising its services – but only for short periods of time: specifically, from Saturday evenings until Sunday morning.

The church took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won in a unanimous ruling announced Thursday. Tedesco summarizes the decision:

"The court said that the sign code violated the First Amendment rights of the church and that the government has no authority to weigh what speech is more important than another form of speech and preferred speech because of those decisions."

The attorney adds that the case "really clarifies a lot of confusion in the law about how that test is applied and clarifies in a way that makes sure that First Amendment free-speech rights are given the preeminent place in our society that they deserve."

The court decision comes eight years after the church filed suit.

A blow to 1st Amendment

In another Thursday ruling, the Supreme Court upheld Texas' refusal to permit a specialty license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans that would contain a Confederate battle flag. In doing so, says a constitutional attorney who filed a brief in the case, the court has placed a further limit on free speech.

"The State of Texas said that the Sons of Confederate Veterans could not have a specialty license plate to join with the 350 other specialty license plates that they already offer because it would be offensive to some and probably induce things like road rage," explains Thomas More Society attorney Jocelyn Floyd.


"The entire purpose of the free speech is to limit governmental power in the debate," she continues. "By expanding government speech, which is not bound by the First Amendment, they are simply expanding the government's voice – and the cost of that is the people's voice."

The court said the government can limit the speech because the government owns the tags. According to Floyd, that raises the question of constitutional protections for other plates that might be controversial in some people's minds – such as "Choose Life" plates that generate funds for adoption and pregnancy help centers.

"This decision is one where the Supreme Court has radically expanded the government's speech doctrine," she laments. "And as the dissent says, 'They take a large and painful bite out of the First Amendment.'"

Floyd predicts there will be confusion in future cases where people think they have the right to free speech, but the government negates it because the government doesn't agree with the message or believes the message is too controversial.

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