SW Legal studies in Business

Prohibition on One Medium of Speech Too Sweeping
Description

New Jersey high court held that a town ordinance prohibiting inflatable signs except in one category violated the First Amendment. By allowing one category of speech, the rule favored certain content, which is prohibited. By banning such signs otherwise, there was a sweeping restriction on a medium of expression that went too far.

Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words

First Amendment; Medium of Expression; Content; Signs

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

A union was having a dispute with a business. As part of a protest, the union displayed a ten-foot-tall inflatable rat-shaped balloon on the sidewalk in front of the business to indicate union displeasure. The Lawrence Township issued a summons to the union as the balloon violated Township rules about signs. The ordinance prohibits “balloon signs or other inflated signs (except grand opening signs) … displayed for the purpose of attracting the attention of pedestrians and motorists.” A fine was imposed on the union for violating the ordinance. The union appealed, but the fine was upheld by the superior court and appellate division courts. The union appealed to the New Jersey high court.

Decision

Reversed and remanded. Public streets and sidewalks are traditionally public forums that are protected by the First Amendment. For a government to enforce a content-based exclusion on speech in a public forum, it must show that the regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn. As the ordinance favored certain speech (grand openings) and not others, it is content based. That kind of restriction draws strict scrutiny. The ordinance is too broad and prohibits an entire medium of speech, so it must be stricken.

Citation

State v. DeAngelo, ---A.2d--- (2009 WL 291169, Sup. Ct., N.J., 2009)

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