Throughout the month of June, the Supreme Court has been deciding cases that affect many areas of property, speech, and religious freedom. Here are three recent rulings you should know about:
The case: Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona
What it was about: The town of Gilbert, Arizona has a municipal code that prohibits the display of outdoor signs without a permit, but has has differing restrictions on political, ideological and directional signs. Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, whose Sunday church services are held at various temporary locations in and near the Gilbert, posted signs early each Saturday bearing the church name and the time and location of the next service. The church usually left the signs up until around midday on Sundays.
The church signs were considered “temporary directional signs” and were cited for exceeding the time limits and for failing to include an event date on the signs. Unable to reach an accommodation with the city of Gilbert, Reed and his church filed suit, claiming that the city code abridged their freedom of speech.
How the Court ruled: The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the church. All nine justices agreed that the distinctions drawn by the ordinance were impermissible, though three disagreed with the majority’s rationale. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said, “Content-based laws — those that target speech based on its communicative content — are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.”
What it was about: The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offers state residents a choice between general-issue and specialty license plates. Those who want the state to issue a particular specialty plate may propose a plate design, comprising a slogan, a graphic, or both. If the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board approves the design, the state will make it available for display on vehicles registered in Texas.
The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its officers filed suit against the DMV arguing that the rejection of their proposal for a specialty plate design featuring a Confederate battle flag violated the Free Speech Clause.
How the Court ruled: In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring a Confederate battle flag. As the ruling notes, “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.”
The case: Horne v. US Department of Agriculture
What it was about: During the New Deal era, Congress gave the USDA the authority to take raisins, along with many other crops, from farmers without compensation and keep them in a government-controlled “reserve” to prevent them from being sold in U.S. markets. But while many of the other reserves faded away, the government has continued to take raisins from farmers—and claims it’s allowed to do so for because the taking benefits the farmer.
The raisins are given to the Raisin Administrative Committee, a California-based organization made up of industry representatives, which is allowed to sell off some of those reserve raisins to pay its own expenses and to promote raisins overseas. Many raisin farmers are fine with the price-fixing cartel. But not everyone went along.
Marvin Horne is one farmer who refused to surrender his raisins to the government. Because of his refusal to allow his crops to be taken without compensation Horne potentially “owed” hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and over 1 million pounds of his crops to the federal government.
Horne challenged the law, arguing the taking of his property without compensation is a violation of the Fifth Amendment, while the government is claiming they can take personal property without compensating the owner. More broadly, the government is arguing they have the ability to take a broad range of personal property—from raisins to iPhones from Americans without compensation. A lower court has agreed, ruling that while the Fifth Amendment protects private property it does not apply to personal property.
How the Court Ruled: The Court sided with Horne, noting that the 5th Amendment forbids the government from taking private property without paying “just compensation.” In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that this protection applies to raisins as well as to land and other property.