Recent U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Impacts Your Community Sign Regulations: Find Out What to Do Right Now

On June 18, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Reed v Gilbert and held the Town of Gilbert’s sign ordinance unconstitutional. In this case, the Town of Gilbert (AZ) regulated a church’s temporary directional signs differently than other noncommercial signs (e.g., political signs and ideological signs). The Court found that these “innocuous justifications” favored certain types of signs and violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

How Your Community’s Sign Regulations are Impacted

Signs are an important design element impacting the prominent rights-of-way of the community. However, most sign ordinances have specific regulations based on the content of the sign, such as real estate, political, special event, garage sale, and gasoline station signs. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against these distinctions, communities are at risk of costly and unnecessary litigation because they regulate signs based on the content of the sign.

What Communities Should Do Immediately

  • Review Your Current Sign Regulations. All communities should conduct a technical audit of their sign regulations and identify any content-based provisions, i.e. provisions that regulate signs based on the message, the speaker, or an event.
  • Discuss Sign Regulations with the Municipal Attorney. The municipal attorney can advise you on how much content neutrality is required in the community’s sign regulations and make leaders aware of any legal risks. Also, legal review of revised provisions will be essential.
  • Amend Sign Regulations. After identifying content-based provisions in your local sign regulations, draft text revisions to comply with the First Amendment while also reflecting your community’s character. Communities may still regulate the non-content aspects of signs, including sign height, form, colors, materials, separation, area, placement, lighting, frequency of message changes, and portability. Clear communication in your ordinance is critical, including effective graphics.

We Can Help

Community planners and the Planning Commission are charged with advising the legislative body on community design, including factors that impact the character and value of the commercial development (tax base) which fronts most major public thoroughfares. Consequently, McKenna planners are experienced in reviewing, writing, administering, and enforcing sign regulations. During a technical audit of your sign ordinance and through the entire ordinance amendment process, McKenna planners can help you develop, write and adopt sign regulations that are consistent with the court’s view and reflective of your community’s desired character. To find out more about how to ensure that your sign ordinance is an effective tool for the municipal vision, speak with your McKenna planner at 888.226.4326 or email us at

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