The “necessity and wisdom of using eminent domain” are “matters of legitimate public debate.” — Justice John Paul Stevens, Kelo v. City of New London (2005)
The Court currently has a sign case before it, one that was argued on January 12th. That case is Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Now it has another one just presented to it: Central Radio Co., Inc. v. City of Norfolk. Here is how the petition opens:
“Central Radio placed a banner on the side of its building protesting government’s attempt to take the building by eminent domain. The City of Norfolk quickly cited Central Radio for violating the City’s sign code, despite not having enforced the code against any other political sign in at least a quarter-century. Although the sign code prohibited Central Radio’s protest banner, it exempts various other categories of signs from regulation. For example, Central Radio’s banner would have been allowed if, rather than protesting city policy, it depicted the city crest or flag.”
The two issues presented to the Court are:
- Does Norfolk’s mere assertion of a content-neutral justification or lack of discriminatory motive render its facially content-based sign code content neutral and justify the code’s differential treatment of Central Radio’s protest banner?
- Can government restrict a protest sign on private property simply because some passersby honk, wave, or yell in support of its message?
B y a 2-1 margin, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals answered both of those questions “yes” and thus denied the First Amendment claim. Judge Barbara M. Keenan wrote the majority opinion which was joined in by Judge G. Steven Agee with Judge Roger Gregory dissenting in part.
Among other things, in her majority opinion Judge Keenan observed: “It is undisputed here that the plaintiffs’ 375-square-foot banner would comport with the City’s sign code if the banner were reduced to a size of 60 square feet. We recently have deemed such an alternative to be adequate upon comparable facts.’ And also this: “Even assuming, without deciding, that the City’s past refusal to enforce strictly the sign code constituted evidence of discriminatory effect, dismissal of the plaintiffs’ selective enforcement claim was proper because there was insufficient evidence that the City was motivated by a discriminatory intent.”
Judge Gregory took exception to the majority’s content-discrimination analysis: “Why is it that the symbols and text of a government flag,” he argued, “do not affect aesthetics or traffic safety and escape regulation, whereas a picture of a flag does negatively affect these interests and must be subjected to size and location restrictions? I see no reason in such a distinction.” And also this: “This case implicates some of the most important values at the heart of our democracy: political speech challenging the government’s seizure of private property – exactly the kind of taking that our Fifth Amendment protects against. If a citizen cannot speak out against the king taking her land, I fear we abandon a core protection of our Constitution’s First Amendment. Here, Central Radio spoke out against the king and won.”
From Petitioner’s Brief
This Court’s review is needed to resolve a longstanding, deep division among the courts of appeals over an important and recurring question of First Amendment law: whether a sign code that, on its face, draws content-based distinctions is nevertheless content-neutral simply because the government disclaims a censorial motive or proffers a content- neutral justification for the code. That question has confounded the lower courts ever since this Court’s sharply fractured decision in Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego (1981), failed to yield an answer. As early as 1994, then-Judge Alito noted this confusion and the need for “the Supreme Court [to] provide further guidance.” Rappa v. New Castle Cnty. (3d Cir. 1994) (Alito, J., concurring). Then-Professor Kagan similarly observed that this issue is “calling for acknowledgment by the Court and an effort to devise a uniform approach.” Elena Kagan, The Changing Faces of First Amendment Neutrality: R.A.V. v. St. Paul, Rust v. Sullivan, and the Problem of Content-Based Underinclusion, 1992 Sup. Ct. Rev. 29, 77 (1992).
If this Court resolves this issue in Reed v. Town of Gilbert and does so in a way that calls into question the Ninth Circuit’s approach to assessing content neutrality – the same approach the Fourth Circuit followed in this case – then an order granting certiorari, vacating the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and remanding this case will be warranted. If, on the other hand, this Court does not resolve the issue in Reed, it should grant certiorari to resolve it now.
→ Counsel for Petitioner: Michael E. Bindas
→ Randy Barnett, “Can a city suppress speech protesting eminent domain?,” Volokh Conspiracy, April 2, 2015
→ Press Conference re filing of lawsuit (May 10, 2012) (YouTube)
Howard Kurtz on “Intolerance” Read More