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High Court Stakes Out Frontyard Freedoms

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IF a person's home is her castle, it's also her bully pulpit. So the US Supreme Court ruled Monday, when it upheld a Missouri woman's right to display a political sign on her lawn and in a window of her house. The high court struck down a municipal ordinance that prohibited most signs in order to limit visual clutter.

Free-speech advocates hailed the ruling as an ``important'' victory. ``The case brought the Supreme Court back to hard-core First Amendment principles,'' says Floyd Abrams, a New York City lawyer who is a leading authority on freedom of expression.

After Ladue, Mo., resident Margaret Gilleo planted a sign in her front yard in 1990 protesting against the war in the Persian Gulf, police officials informed her that it violated a city ordinance banning all signs except for-sale signs. Later Ms. Gilleo taped a smaller antiwar poster in a window of her house, but it, too, ran afoul of the ordinance.

Gilleo sued the city to overthrow the ban. A federal trial court ruled in her favor, and the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. Relying on a 1981 Supreme Court decision, the appellate judges ruled that the Ladue ordinance improperly favored commercial signs over political and other noncommercial signs. The city appealed to the high court, arguing that the nearly across-the-board ban on signs did not discriminate on the basis of the signs' content.

But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the ordinance is unconstitutional. In his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens based the decision on two grounds:

* Even ``content neutral'' laws that restrict expression for aesthetic and other legitimate purposes can simply go too far. ``Although prohibitions foreclosing entire media may be completely free of content or viewpoint discrimination, ... such measures can suppress too much speech,'' Justice Stevens wrote.

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