Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As a general matter, government may not regulate speech “because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” 1 “It is rare that a regulation restricting speech because of its content will ever be permissible.” 2 The constitutionality of content-based regulation is determined by a strict scrutiny standard: the government “must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” 3 Narrow tailoring in the case of fully protected speech requires that the government “choose[ ] the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest.” 4 Application of this test ordinarily results in invalidation of the regulation.5
The Court has recognized two central ways in which a law can impose content-based restrictions, which include not only restrictions on particular viewpoints, but also prohibitions on public discussions of an entire topic.6 First, a government regulation of speech is content-based if the regulation on its face draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys.7 For example, in Boos v. Barry, the Court held that a Washington D.C. ordinance prohibiting the display of signs near any foreign embassy that brought a foreign government into “public odiom” or “public disrepute” drew a content-based distinction on its face.8 Second, the Court has recognized that facially content-neutral laws can be considered content-based regulations of speech if a law cannot be “justified without reference to the content of speech” or was adopted “because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys.” 9 As a result, in an example provided in Sorrell v. IMS Health, the Court noted that if a government “bent on frustrating an impending demonstration” passed a law demanding two years’ notice before the issuance of parade permits, such a law, while facially content-neutral, would be content-based because its purpose was to suppress speech on a particular topic.10
Importantly, for a law that falls within the first category of recognized content-based regulations—those laws that are content-based on their face—the government’s justifications or purposes for enacting that law are irrelevant to determine whether the law is subject to strict scrutiny.11 Put another way, for laws that facially draw distinctions based on the subject matter of the underlying speech, there is no need for a court to look into the purpose of the underlying law being challenged under the First Amendment; instead, that law is automatically subject to strict scrutiny.12 As such, in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court, in invalidating provisions of a municipality’s sign code that imposed more stringent restrictions on signs directing the public to an event than on signs conveying political or ideological messages, determined the sign code to be content-based and subject to strict scrutiny, notwithstanding the town’s “benign,” non-speech related motives for enacting the code.13 In so holding, the Court reasoned that the First Amendment, by targeting the “abridgement of speech,” is centrally concerned with the operations of laws and not the motivations of those who enacted the laws.14 In this vein, the Court concluded that the “vice” of content-based legislation is not that it will “always” be used for invidious purposes, but rather that content-based restrictions necessarily lend themselves to such purposes.15
After Reed, lower courts diverged over whether a law was necessarily content-based on its face if its application or enforcement turned on the content of the speech at issue. In City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC, the Court clarified that a law is facially content-based if it applies to particular speech because of the subject matter, topic, or viewpoint expressed—that is, if it turns on the “substantive message” conveyed. The case involved a city ordinance restricting signs advertising businesses or events at another location. Thus, to enforce the law, one had to read the content of the sign to know whether it advertised an off-premise business. The Court nonetheless upheld the law as a permissible content-neutral regulation because it did not “single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment.” The Court clarified that a law may be facially content-neutral even if “a reader must ask: who is the speaker and what is the speaker saying” to determine if the law applies, so long as that examination is “only in service of drawing neutral” lines that are “agnostic as to content.”
A law generally regulating speech that exempts certain speech on the basis of its content may also raise constitutional concerns. In Barr v. American Ass’n of Political Consultants, the Court examined whether an exception in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) created invalid, content-based distinctions in the regulatory scheme.16 Since its enactment in 1991, the TCPA prohibited robocalls to cell phones, with exceptions for emergency calls or automated calls following the prior consent of the receiver.17 In 2015, Congress amended the TCPA to exempt calls made to collect federal debt, such as student loan debt.18 In a plurality opinion,19 Justice Kavanaugh wrote that this “government-debt exception” was content-based on its face, explaining: “A robocall that says, ‘Please pay your government debt’ is legal. A robocall that says, ‘Please donate to ourpoliticalcampaign’ is illegal.” 20 In the plurality’s view, the distinction created by the 2015 amendment was “about as content-based as it gets.” 21 The government conceded—and the plurality agreed—that the exception did not satisfy strict scrutiny because the government had not “sufficiently justified the differentiation between government-debt collection speech and other important categories of robocall speech, such aspoliticalspeech, charitable fundraising, issue advocacy, commercial advertising, and the like.” 22
While content-based restrictions on protected speech are presumptively unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has recognized that the First Amendment permits restrictions upon the content of speech in a “few limited areas,” including obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, fighting words, and speech integral to criminal conduct.23 This “two-tier” approach to content-based regulations of speech derives from Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, wherein the Court opined that there exist “certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [that] are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth” such that the government may prevent those utterances and punish those uttering them without raising any constitutional issues.24 As the Court has generally applied Chaplinsky over the past several decades, if speech fell within one of the “well-defined and narrowly limited” categories, it was unprotected, regardless of its effect. If it did not, it was covered by the First Amendment, and the speech was protected unless the restraint was justified by some test relating to harm, such as the clear and present danger test or the more modern approach of balancing the presumptively protected expression against a compelling governmental interest. In more recent decades, the cases reflect a fairly consistent and sustained movement by the Court toward eliminating or severely narrowing the “two-tier” doctrine. As a result, expression that before would have been held absolutely unprotected (e.g., seditious speech and seditious libel, fighting words, defamation, and obscenity) received protection. While the movement was temporarily deflected by a shift in position with respect to obscenity and by the recognition of a new category of non-obscene child pornography,25 the most recent decisions of the Court reflect a reluctance to add any new categories of excepted speech and to interpret narrowly the excepted categories of speech that have long-established roots in First Amendment law.26
- Police Dep’t of Chicago v. Mosle, 408 U.S. 92, 95 (1972). See also Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205, 208–12 (1975); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978); Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455 (1980); Metromedia v. City of San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981) (plurality opinion); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981); Regan v. Time, Inc., 468 U.S. 641 (1984).
- United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803, 818 (2000). The distinction between, on the one hand, directly regulating, and, on the other hand, incidentally affecting, the content of expression was sharply drawn by Justice Harlan in Konigsberg v. State Bar of California, 366 U.S. 36, 49–51 (1961): “Throughout its history this Court has consistently recognized at least two ways in which constitutionally protected freedom of speech is narrower than an unlimited license to talk. On the one hand, certain forms of speech, or speech in certain contexts, has been considered outside the scope of constitutional protection. . . . On the other hand, general regulatory statutes, not intended to control the content of speech but incidentally limiting its unfettered exercise, have not been regarded as the type of law the First or Fourteenth Amendments forbade Congress or the States to pass, when they have been found justified by subordinating valid governmental interests, a prerequisite to constitutionality which has necessarily involved a weighing of the governmental interest involved.” The Court set forth the test for “incidental limitations on First Amendment freedoms” in United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 376 (1968). See also San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 537 (1987).
- Ark. Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 231 (1987).
- Sable Commc’ns of Cal. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989).
- But see Williams-Yulee v. Fla. Bar, 575 U.S. ___, No. 13-1499, slip op. (2015) (upholding a provision of the state judicial code prohibiting judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign funds); Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992) (plurality opinion) (upholding state law prohibiting the solicitation of votes and the display or distribution of campaign literature within 100 feet of a polling place).
- See Ark. Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 230 (1987) (citing Consol. Edison Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 530, 537 (1980)).
- See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989); see also Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41, 48 (1986) (holding that content-neutral “speech regulations are those that are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.” ) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
- See 485 U.S. 312, 315 (1988).
- See Ward, 491 U.S. at 791.
- See 564 U.S. 552, 566 (2011).
- See Turner Broad. Sys. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 642–43 (1994) ( “Nor will the mere assertion of a content-neutral purpose be enough to save a law which, on its face, discriminates, based on content.” ).
- See Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U.S. ___, No. 13-502, slip op. at 8 (2015) ( “But Ward's framework applies only if a statute is content-neutral.” ) (internal citations and quotations omitted).
- Id. at 8. The Reed Court ultimately held that the sign code was not narrowly tailored to further the justifications for the law—aesthetics and traffic safety—because the code did allow many signs that threatened the beauty of the town and because the town could not demonstrate that directional signs posed a greater threat to safety than other types of signs that were treated differently under the code. Id. at 14–15.
- Id. at 10.
- 140 S. Ct. 2335 (2020) (plurality opinion).
- Id. at 2344.
- Id. at 2344–45.
- Justice Kavanaugh’s plurality opinion on the First Amendment issue was joined by three other Justices, though, in total, five Members of the Court viewed the government-debt exception as impermissibly content-based, and six Members concluded—one on alternative grounds—that it violated the First Amendment. Id. at 2344; see also id. at 2356 (Sotomayor, J., concurring in the judgment) (agreeing with “much of the partial dissent’s explanation that strict scrutiny should not apply to all content-based distinctions,” but concluding that the government-debt exception nevertheless “fails intermediate scrutiny” because it is not “narrowly tailored” ); id. at 2364 (Gorsuch,J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part) ( “In my view, the TCPA’s rule against cellphone robocalls is a content-based restriction that fails strict scrutiny.” ). Seven Members of the Court concluded that the government-debt exception could be severed without invalidating the TCPA in its entirety. Id. at 2342 (plurality opinion).
- Id. at 2346.
- Id. at 2347.
- See United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 468 (2010).
- 315 U.S. 568, 571–72 (1942).
- See New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 759 (1982).
- See, e.g., United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. ___, No. 11-210, slip op. at 5 (2012) (plurality opinion) ( “Absent from those few categories where the law allows content-based regulation of speech is any general exception to the First Amendment for false statements.” ); Brown v. Entm’t Merchs. Ass’n, 564 U.S. 786, 792 (2011) (holding that the obscenity exception to the First Amendment does not cover violent speech); Stevens, 559 U.S. at 472 (declining to “carve out” an exception to First Amendment protections for depictions of illegal acts of animal cruelty); Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 55 (1988) (refusing to restrict speech based on its level of “outrageousness” ).