January 29, 2016 Articles

Reed v. Town of Gilbert: Upholding the Free Speech Ideals of the First Amendment

A Supreme Court decision on sign regulations extends to panhandling controls.

Anannya Tripathy – January 29, 2016

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right embodied in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. The First Amendment protects panhandling as speech, which means that any attempt by any government to circumscribe this right must survive a strict scrutiny analysis. The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed this in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015), an appeal from the Ninth Circuit, in which it held that the provisions of an Arizona municipality’s code, imposing more stringent restrictions on signs directing the public to the meeting of a nonprofit group than on signs conveying other messages, constituted “content-based regulations of speech” that could not survive strict scrutiny. Id. at 2224.

On a microcosmic level, Reed struck down municipal regulations on the size, number, and location of signs a local church and its pastor wanted to display; on a macrocosmic level, it led to a surge in the number of courts that have stricken bans on panhandling, understanding such bans to be in violation of the new ruling. See Scott Keyes, “Courts Are Striking Back Against the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Thinkprogress.org, Oct. 8, 2015.

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