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U.S. Supreme Court

City Council v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789 (1984)

Members of the City Council of the City of Los Angeles v.

Taxpayers for Vincent

No. 82-975

Argued October 12, 1983

Decided May 15, 1984

466 U.S. 789


Section 28.04 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibits the posting of signs on public property. Appellee Taxpayers for Vincent, a group of supporters of a candidate for election to the Los Angeles City Council, entered into a contract with appellee Candidates' Outdoor Graphics Service (COGS) to fabricate and post signs with the candidate's name on them. COGS produced cardboard signs and attached them to utility pole crosswires at various locations. Acting under § 28.04, city employees routinely removed all posters (including the COGS signs) attached to utility poles and similar objects covered by the ordinance. Appellees then filed suit in Federal District Court against appellants, the city and various city officials (hereafter City), alleging that § 28.04 abridged appellees' freedom of speech within the meaning of the First Amendment, and seeking damages and injunctive relief. The District Court entered findings of fact, concluded that § 28.04 was constitutional, and granted the City's motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the ordinance was presumptively unconstitutional because significant First Amendment interests were involved, and that the City had not justified its total ban on all signs on the basis of its asserted interests in preventing visual clutter, minimizing traffic hazards, and preventing interference with the intended use of public property.


1. The "overbreadth" doctrine is not applicable here. There is nothing in the record to indicate that § 28.04 will have any different impact on any third parties' interests in free speech than it has on appellees' interests, and appellees have failed to identify any significant difference between their claim that § 28.04 is invalid on overbreadth grounds and their claim that it is unconstitutional when applied to their signs during a political campaign. Thus, it is inappropriate to entertain an overbreadth challenge to § 28.04. Pp. 466 U. S. 796-803.

2. Section 28.04 is not unconstitutional as applied to appellees' expressive activity. Pp. 466 U. S. 803-817.

(a) The general principle that the First Amendment forbids the government to regulate speech in ways that favor some viewpoints or ideas

Page 466 U. S. 790

at the expense of others is not applicable here. Section 28.04's text is neutral -- indeed it is silent -- concerning any speaker's point of view, and the District Court's findings indicate that it has been applied to appellees and others in an evenhanded manner. It is within the City's constitutional power to attempt to improve its appearance, and this interest is basically unrelated to the suppression of ideas. Cf. United States v. O'Brien, 391 U. S. 367, 391 U. S. 377. Pp. 466 U. S. 803-805.

(b) Municipalities have a weighty, essentially esthetic interest in proscribing intrusive and unpleasant formats for expression. The problem addressed by § 28.04 -- the visual assault on the citizens of Los Angeles presented by an accumulation of signs posted on public property -- constitutes a significant substantive evil within the City's power to prohibit. Metromedia, Inc. v. San Diego, 453 U. S. 490. Pp. 466 U. S. 805-807.

(c) Section 28.04 curtails no more speech than is necessary to accomplish its purpose of eliminating visual clutter. By banning posted signs, the City did no more than eliminate the exact source of the evil it sought to remedy. The rationale of Schneider v. State, 308 U. S. 147, which held that ordinances that absolutely prohibited handbilling on public streets and sidewalks were invalid, is inapposite in the context of the instant case. Pp. 466 U. S. 808-810.

(d) The validity of the City's esthetic interest in the elimination of signs on public property is not compromised by failing to extend the ban to private property. The private citizen's interest in controlling the use of his own property justifies the disparate treatment, and there is no predicate in the District Court's findings for the conclusion that the prohibition against the posting of appellees' signs fails to advance the City's esthetic interest. Pp. 466 U. S. 810-812.

(e) While a restriction on expressive activity may be invalid if the remaining modes of communication are inadequate, § 28.04 does not affect any individual's freedom to exercise the right to speak and to distribute literature in the same place where the posting of signs on public property is prohibited. The District Court's findings indicate that there are ample alternative modes of communication in Los Angeles. P. 466 U. S. 812.

(f) There is no merit in appellees' suggestion that the property covered by § 28.04 either is itself a "public forum," subject to special First Amendment protection, or at least should be treated in the same respect as the "public forum" in which the property is located. The mere fact that government property can be used as a vehicle for communication -- such as the use of lampposts as signposts -- does not mean that the Constitution requires such use to be permitted. Public property which is not, by tradition or designation, a forum for public communication may be reserved by the government for its intended purposes, communicative or otherwise, if the regulation on speech (as here) is reasonable and not an

Page 466 U. S. 791

effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view. Pp. 466 U. S. 813-815.

(g) Although plausible policy arguments might well be made in support of appellees' suggestion that the City could have written an ordinance that would have had a less severe effect on expressive activity like theirs -- such as by providing an exception for political campaign signs -- it does not follow that such an exception is constitutionally mandated, nor is it clear that some of the suggested exceptions would even be constitutionally permissible. To create an exception for appellees' political speech and not other types of protected speech might create a risk of engaging in constitutionally forbidden content discrimination. The City may properly decide that the esthetic interest in avoiding visual clutter justifies a removal of all signs creating or increasing that clutter. Pp. 466 U. S. 815-817.

682 F.2d 847, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 466 U. S. 818.

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