Members of the City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent
Decided on May 15, 1984; 466 US 789


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the prohibition, found in Section 28.04 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, precluding the posting of signs on public property, abridge appellees' freedom of speech within the meaning of the First Amendment?


A. Background:

§28.04 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibits the posting of signs on public property.  In March 1979, Roland Vincent was a candidate for election to the Los Angeles City Council (Petitioner). A group of his supporters, known as Taxpayers for Vincent (Respondents), entered into a contract with a political sign service company known as Candidates' Outdoor Graphics Service (COGS) to fabricate and post signs with Vincent's name on them. COGS produced 15 44-inch cardboard signs and attached them to utility poles at various locations. The signs' message read "Roland Vincent-City Council."

Acting under the authority of §28.04 of the Municipal Code, employees of the city's Bureau of Street Maintenance routinely removed all posters attached to utility poles and similar objects covered by the ordinance, including the COGS signs. Taxpayers and COGS challenged the ordinance as unconstitutional, arguing that their posting of political campaign signs on the crossarms of utility poles was protected under the 1st Amendment.  Respondents sought damages and injunctive relief.

The District Court 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.

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Wayne S. Canterbury argued the cause and filed a brief for appellees. Anthony Saul Alperin argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were Ira Reiner and Gary R. Netzer.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
A brief of amici curiae urging affirmance was filed by Alan L. Schlosser, Amitai Schwartz, Fred Okrand, and Neil H. O'Donnell for the American Civil Liberties Union. Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the City of Antioch by William R. Galstan; and for the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers by J. Lamar Shelley, John W. Witt, Henry W. Underhill, Jr., Benjamin L. Brown, Roy D. Bates, James B. Brennan, Roger F. Cutler, Clifford D. Pierce, Jr., Walter M. Powell, Frederick A.O. Schwarz, Jr., William H. Taube, William I. Thornton, Jr., Max P. Zall, and Charles S. Rhyne.


"The 'overbreadth' doctrine is not applicable here. There is nothing in the record to indicate that [Section] 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 [Section] 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 [Section] 28.04... Section 28.04 is not unconstitutional as applied to appellees' expressive activity.

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

Municipalities have a weighty, essentially esthetic interest in proscribing intrusive and unpleasant formats for expression. The problem addressed by [Section] 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.

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...

While a restriction on expressive activity may be invalid if the remaining modes of communication are inadequate, [Section] 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.

There is no merit in appellees' suggestion that the property covered by [Section] 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 effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker's view.

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... reversed and remanded ."

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Stevens, J. Con  (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, E. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro  (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro  (Joined Brennan’s dissent)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro  (Joined Brennan’s dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.