High Court Stakes Out Frontyard Freedoms

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.

* A person's home and activities related to it are entitled to strong constitutional protection. ``A special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of our culture and our law,'' Stevens wrote. ``That principle has a special resonance when the government seeks to restrain a person's ability to speak there.''

Moreover, Stevens continued, public communications on one's private property convey messages in a unique way. Besides making an unmistakably personal statement, he noted, home signs are ``an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication.''

The striking aspect of the case is that ``the Supreme Court decided it on broad grounds,'' Mr. Abrams said. ``It could have decided the case as the Eighth Circuit did, saying that the ordinance was flawed because it favored commercial speech over noncommercial speech. But it adopted a broader and clearer ground.''

Burt Neuborne, a professor at New York University Law School who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Gilleo's position, says: ``That doctrine - striking down laws that discriminate between commercial and noncommercial speech - is important, but it has been overused.''

Also, Professor Neuborne says, that approach ``has often sent the wrong message to regulators, who have concluded that it is all right to ban entire categories of speech, such as signs, as long as you don't discriminate.''

Noting that Stevens's opinion left room for ``more temperate measures'' to ``satisfy Ladue's interests,'' both Abrams and Neuborne say the court's opinion will not prevent towns from imposing rules to limit ``ugliness, visual blight, and clutter,'' as the Ladue ordinance put it. Such measures could include restrictions on the size, placement, and number of signs on a homeowner's property, Abrams says.

But Neuborne emphasizes that the justices hit a home run. ``The court proved that, when you throw it a chest-high fast ball, it can still get around on it.''

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