A municipal ordinance aiming to reduce visual clutter through the regulation of signs in the yards of private homes that prohibits protected speech may violate the First Amendment if the ordinance cannot pass strict scrutiny.
Margaret P. Gilleo was a resident of Ladue, MO. On December 8, 1990, she placed a sign in her front yard expressing her opposition to a war in the Persian Gulf and encouraging viewers to contact Congress regarding this matter. Her sign disappeared, so she erected yet another. After this sign, too, disappeared, Gilleo filed a complaint with the police, who informed her that such signs were prohibited by city ordinance. Ladue had a broad ban on signs, making exceptions for only ten instances, including residential markers, home sale signs, commercial signs in properly-zoned areas, etc. After being refused a variance, Gilleo filed suit in federal court against the city, Mayor Edith Spinks, and the members of the city council. The district court struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional, and this decision was affirmed by the appeals court.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the ruling of the Appeals Court. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, expressed the Court's suspicion of regulations eliminating an entire form of communication, in this case signs. While Ladue alleged that this regulation was permissible as a restriction on "time, place, and manner" since residents could express themselves via other means, the Court found that there were no means that would be adequate substitutes. Ladue had also argued that its regulation was content neutral, but this did not satisfy the Court, which still found that the regulation prevented too much speech that is protected.
In the opinion,
Although Ladue has a concededly valid interest in minimizing visual clutter, it has almost completely foreclosed an important and distinct medium of expression to political, religious, or personal messages. Prohibitions foreclosing entire media may be completely free of content or viewpoint discrimination, but such measures can suppress too much speech by eliminating a common means of speaking.
Displaying a sign from one's own residence carries a message quite distinct from placing the same sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means, for it provides information about the speaker's identity, an important component of many attempts to persuade.
A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of this Nation's culture and law and has a special resonance when the government seeks to constrain a person's ability to speak there.