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First Amendment: Speech

Free Speech Doctrine After Reed v. Town of Gilbert

After Justice Scalia’s death, it seems everything is up for grabs: gun rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, environmental protection, labor unions, campaign finance. In every major area where the late Justice provided a crucial fifth vote, a new Justice may shift the Supreme Court majority and, in turn, the law for decades to come.

But perhaps not everything has changed. Specifically, not five, but six Justices have supported the Court’s invocation of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech to strike down commercial regulation,1×1. See Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2667, 2672 (2011) (invalidating commercial regulation on First Amendment grounds in a majority opinion by Justice Kennedy joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor). meaning that even without Justice Scalia, the commercialization of the First Amendment may continue apace.2×2. Cf. John C. Coates IV, Corporate Speech & the First Amendment: History, Data, and Implications, 30 Const. Comment. 223, 248–65 (2015); Amanda Shanor, The New Lochner (Sept. 2, 2015) (unpublished manuscript), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2652762 [http://perma.cc/S7YZ-D8JV].

This Note focuses on understanding the doctrinal implications of Reed v. Town of Gilbert,3×3. 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015). the Court’s most recent invocation of the First Amendment’s expansive deregulatory potential. In Reed, by articulating a broad standard for deeming a regulation to be content based, a six-Justice majority risked subjecting numerous reasonable regulations to strict scrutiny when faced with a First Amendment challenge.4×4. See infra section I.B, pp. 1984–87. The six-Justice majority in Reed was identical to that in Sorrell, 131 S. Ct. 2653, suggesting that Justice Sotomayor might become an unexpected swing vote in future free speech cases. In its immediate wake, many feared that Reed had quietly reshaped free speech doctrine in the image of economic libertarianism.5×5. See Adam Liptak, Court’s Free-Speech Expansion Has Far-Reaching Consequences, N.Y. Times (Aug. 17, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/us/politics/courts-free-speech-expansion-has-far-reaching-consequences.html.

This Note maps the synapse between cases and doctrine in attempting to understand the extent of Reed’s reach and its potential impact on First Amendment doctrine. It argues that no, Reed is not a free speech test for all seasons.6×6. Cf. Staughton Lynd, Comment, Brandenburg v. Ohio: A Speech Test For All Seasons?, 43 U. Chi. L. Rev. 151 (1975). Rather than applying to all free speech cases, Reed only applies to certain regulations of noncommercial speech and can be distinguished up, down, and sideways in other contexts.7×7. See infra Part II, pp. 1987–98. Reed does not displace existing commercial speech doctrine, nor does it apply to general regulations of economic conduct. By analyzing numerous cases decided in the aftermath of Reed, this Note argues that lower courts have (for the most part) already begun the process of narrowing Reed from below.8×8. See Richard M. Re, Narrowing Supreme Court Precedent from Below, 104 Geo. L.J. (forthcoming 2016), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2699607 [http://perma.cc/9XAM-HUJ4].

As a result, Reed may have an unexpected impact on the structure of First Amendment doctrine. Rather than cementing the centrality of the division between content-based and content-neutral regulations, Reed may have instead diminished the distinction’s importance.9×9. See infra Part III, pp. 1998–2002. By elevating a simple rule of content analysis above its underlying purpose of ferreting out impermissible government regulation of speech, Reed exposed the flaws of strict content analysis as an organizing principle for free speech doctrine. Lower courts can best protect core First Amendment values, and might encourage the Supreme Court to do the same, by refusing to let the content-based tail wag the First Amendment dog.

I. Reed and the Content Distinction

A. A Capsule Summary of Free Speech Doctrine

Current First Amendment free speech doctrine is, in a word, doctrinal. It aggressively subdivides the known world into endless categories and describes distinctive rules and tests to evaluate the constitutionality of regulations that fall within those categories.10×10. See, e.g., Wilson R. Huhn, Assessing the Constitutionality of Laws that Are Both Content-Based and Content-Neutral: The Emerging Constitutional Calculus, 79 Ind. L.J. 801, 803 (2004) (“[D]issatisfaction has arisen because current First Amendment doctrine relies heavily on categorical analysis. The categorical distinctions that the Court has previously established . . . are too rigid to adequately explain the complexity of First Amendment law.”); Robert Post, Reconciling Theory and Doctrine in First Amendment Jurisprudence, 88 Calif. L. Rev. 2353, 2355 (2000) (“The free speech jurisprudence of the First Amendment is notorious for its flagrantly proliferating and contradictory rules, its profoundly chaotic collection of methods and theories.”).

The core division at the heart of current free speech doctrine separates regulations that are content based from those that are content neutral.11×11. Content analysis, of course, does not apply in First Amendment challenges to all regulations of speech. Some narrowly defined categories of content-based speech, most notably obscenity, are outside the First Amendment’s protection wholesale. See generally Frederick Schauer, The Boundaries of the First Amendment: A Preliminary Exploration of Constitutional Salience, 117 Harv. L. Rev. 1765, 1769–75 (2004) (discussing the boundaries of the First Amendment’s coverage). Neither does content analysis, under current doctrine, necessarily demand strict scrutiny in challenges to regulation of speech by certain actors, including students, prisoners, and government employees, or to speech by the state itself. See generally Laurence Tribe & Joshua Matz, Uncertain Justice 121–53 (2014). Regulations that distinguish speech on the basis of its content are subject to strict scrutiny, whereas those that are neutral with respect to the content of the regulated speech are evaluated under a less searching, intermediate scrutiny standard of review.12×12. Leslie Kendrick, Content Discrimination Revisited, 98 Va. L. Rev. 231, 237 (2012). As Professor Leslie Kendrick puts it: “Given that almost all laws fail strict scrutiny and almost all laws pass intermediate scrutiny, the pivotal point in the doctrinal structure is the content analysis.”13×13. Id. at 238.

The content distinction is intended, many scholars argue, to guide courts in identifying regulations “improperly motivated . . . by hostility to targeted speech.”14×14. Ashutosh Bhagwat, Purpose Scrutiny in Constitutional Analysis, 85 Calif. L. Rev. 297, 362 (1997) (arguing that, though this is the justification for the distinction, it is an insufficient one). While there may be other justifications for the content distinction, “it is difficult to formulate it in a way that is not concerned with why the government is regulating.”15×15. Kendrick, supra note 12, at 248. Independent of the legislature’s subjective intent, the content distinction serves to identify objectively heightened risk that the government’s actions violated the First Amendment. The content distinction thus provides courts with a ready guide for a first-order determination of whether the regulation of the speech in question risks impermissible government intervention in the marketplace of ideas.

In practice, however, the content distinction is quite messy and only roughly tracks the division between permissible and impermissible regulation.16×16. Cf. Elena Kagan, Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine, 63 U. Chi. L. Rev. 413, 414 (1996) (arguing that First Amendment law’s unstated objective is identifying improper governmental motives). As a first cut of possible speech regulations, requiring all content-based regulations to be subjected to strict scrutiny results in problems of both over- and underinclusion. Overinclusion in that certain content-based regulations pose no risk of official interference with the channels of democracy or the search for truth. And underinclusion in that content-neutral regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression still have the potential to “devastate expressive content.”17×17. John D. Inazu, The First Amendment’s Public Forum, 56 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1159, 1181 (2015).

As a result of the awkward fit between the content distinction and the real-world contours of desirable speech regulation, courts have developed a series of categorical exceptions, reducing the level of scrutiny for certain types of content-based regulations of speech — such as regulations of commercial speech.18×18. See Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980). Some scholars, Justice Breyer chief among them, have advocated for replacing the current structure of rigid tiers of scrutiny and fixed categorical exceptions with a case-by-case ad hoc balancing approach.19×19. See, e.g., United States v. Alvarez, 132 S. Ct. 2537, 2551–53 (2012) (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment). In opting for a categorical approach, we end up facing similar questions: what is the process by which the relevant categories are determined and defined, and at what level of generality? See Mark Tushnet, The First Amendment and Political Risk, 4 J. Legal Analysis 103, 116–19, 122 (2012).

In addition to the clunkyness of the content distinction itself, there is also the practical problem of how to decide which regulations fall on which side of the line. How are courts to define the difference between regulations that are content based and those that are content neutral? It has been hard to say.20×20. See Barry P. McDonald, Speech and Distrust: Rethinking the Content Approach to Protecting the Freedom of Expression, 81 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1347, 1353 (2006). But in Reed, a majority of the Supreme Court seemed to adopt a clear statement of the distinction that broadly deems regulations to be content based.

B. Reed v. Town of Gilbert

In Reed, the Supreme Court invalidated the Sign Code21×21. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., Land Development Code (Sign Code) ch. 1, § 4.402 (2005) . enacted by the Town of Gilbert, Arizona, as a content-based regulation of speech.22×22. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2224 (2015). The Sign Code singled out different types of signs for special treatment, specifying requirements for their size and the locations and times at which they could be displayed.23×23. Specifically, the Sign Code distinguished between “Ideological Sign[s],” “Political Sign[s],” and “Temporary Directional Signs.” Id. at 2224–25 (alterations in original). Ideological signs were treated most favorably under the Sign Code; they were permitted “to be up to 20 square feet in area and to be placed in all ‘zoning districts’ without time limits.” Id. at 2224 (quoting Sign Code § 4.402(J)). Political signs were allowed to be “up to 16 square feet on residential property and up to 32 square feet” elsewhere, and were allowed to “be displayed up to 60 days before a primary election and up to 15 days following a general election.” Id. at 2224–25. Temporary directional signs were not to be “larger than six square feet,” were permitted to “be placed on private property or on a public right-of-way” so long as “no more than four signs [were] placed on a single property at any time,” and could “be displayed no more than 12 hours before the ‘qualifying event’ and no more than 1 hour afterward.” Id. at 2225 (internal citations omitted) (quoting Sign Code § 4.402(P)). A small church challenged the Sign Code as a violation of freedom of speech under the First Amendment.24×24. Id. at 2225–26.

Writing for the Court, Justice Thomas held that the Sign Code’s distinctions among different types of signs were content based and did not satisfy strict scrutiny.25×25. Id. at 2231–32. Reed is a rare occasion on which Chief Justice Roberts assigned the majority opinion in a salient case to Justice Thomas. See Richard J. Lazarus, Back to “Business” at the Supreme Court: The “Administrative Side” of Chief Justice Roberts, 129 Harv. L. Rev. F. 33, 58–59, 60 n.161 (2015). In finding the Sign Code to be content based, the Court announced a broad new standard. It held that “[g]overnment regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.”26×26. Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2227. “This commonsense meaning of the phrase ‘content based’ requires a court to consider whether a regulation of speech ‘on its face’ draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys.”27×27. Id. (quoting Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2664 (2011)). Facially content-based regulations are automatically “subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of ‘animus toward the ideas contained’ in the regulated speech.”28×28. Id. at 2228 (quoting Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc., 507 U.S. 410, 429 (1993)). Even where a regulation does not address content on its face, it will be considered content based if it cannot be “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.”29×29. Id. at 2227 (quoting Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989)). The Court also affirmed that a regulation is content based if it was “adopted by the government ‘because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys.’” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Ward, 491 U.S. at 791). The majority in Reed held that the Town of Gilbert’s Sign Code was content based on its face and thus subject to strict scrutiny, which it failed — epically.30×30. Id. at 2231–32. Justice Kagan, concurring in the judgment, argued that the Town’s defense of the Sign Code “does not pass strict scrutiny, or intermediate scrutiny, or even the laugh test.” Id. at 2239 (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment).

Attempting to mitigate the apparent breadth of the majority’s holding, Justice Alito, concurring,31×31. Justice Alito was joined by Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor. listed a number of different regulations that he believed would still be content neutral under Reed’s new rule.32×32. See Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2233 (Alito, J., concurring). Justice Alito’s concurrence, however, did not offer a theoretical basis for distinguishing its protected categories from the reach of the majority’s standard.33×33. At least two of Justice Alito’s exceptions — the seventh, involving the on-premises/off-premises distinction, and the ninth, dealing with signs advertising one-time events — seem irreconcilable with the broad rule asserted by the majority. A lower court has already found a regulation distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs to be content based. See infra notes 79–83 and accompanying text. And Justice Kagan noted the dissonance between the one-time event exception and the facts of Reed itself. See Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2237 n.* (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment).

Three Justices flatly disagreed with the majority’s reasoning. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, admitted that the Sign Code did not pass First Amendment muster but criticized the breadth of the Court’s holding, arguing that strict scrutiny should be applied to content-based regulations of speech only where there is a “realistic possibility that official suppression of ideas is afoot.”34×34. Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2237 (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment) (quoting Davenport v. Wash. Educ. Ass’n, 551 U.S. 177, 189 (2007)). The majority would require courts to “strike down . . . democratically enacted local laws even though no one — certainly not the majority — has ever explained why the vindication of First Amendment values requires that result.”35×35. Id. at 2239. In a separate opinion, Justice Breyer argued against a rigid approach requiring strict scrutiny for content-based regulations, as “[r]egulatory programs almost always require content discrimination. And to hold that such content discrimination triggers strict scrutiny is to write a recipe for judicial management of ordinary government regulatory activity.”36×36. Id. at 2234 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment). As early as oral argument, Justice Breyer recognized that a broad test for deeming regulations to be content based could imperil wide swaths of reasonable government regulation. See Transcript of Oral Argument at 21, Reed, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015) (No. 13-502) (“[T]he entire U.S. Code is filled with content distinctions. All of crime is filled with content distinctions. All of regulation has content distinctions.”); see also, e.g., Schauer, supra note 11, at 1778–84 (describing securities regulation, antitrust law, labor law, and numerous other legal regimes as content-based regulations of speech). Justice Breyer would have invalidated the Sign Code in Reed under an ad hoc balancing test. See Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2235–36 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment).

The majority’s articulation of the standard for deeming a regulation content based is notable for two main reasons. First, it divorces the content distinction from its intended purpose of ferreting out impermissible government motive.37×37. See, e.g., Kagan, supra note 16, at 450–56. Even where government motive is completely benign, the Court affirmed that content-based regulations are nonetheless suspect and should be subjected to strict scrutiny.38×38. This requirement of strict scrutiny for any and all content-based regulations of speech seems to conflict with an earlier decision refusing to apply strict scrutiny in a challenge to a municipal sign law with an exception for commemorative markers and address numbers. See Members of City Council v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 792 n.1, 804–10 (1984). Second, it defines the category of content-based regulations in language sufficiently broad to cover nearly all regulations. Finding a regulation to be content based whenever it cannot be “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech”39×39. Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2227 (quoting Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791 (1989)). could be read to include any regulation that even incidentally distinguishes between activities or industries.

After Reed, commentators echoed Justice Breyer’s concerns and cautioned that the majority and its formalist, absolutist approach to content neutrality had transformed First Amendment doctrine, with effects reaching far beyond the case’s immediate context.40×40. See Liptak, supra note 5. Crafty litigants immediately made First Amendment arguments challenging all sorts of government regulation under Reed: other municipal sign codes,41×41. See infra p. 1993. antipanhandling regulations,42×42. See infra pp. 1994–95. commercial speech regulations,43×43. See infra section II.B, pp. 1990–92. and regulations of general commercial conduct.44×44. See infra section II.A, pp. 1987–90.

But, as the next Part argues, despite numerous post-Reed challenges to diverse government regulations, lower courts have generally resisted Reed’s deregulatory potential.

II. Reading Reed: Dimensions of Distinction

If interpreted at full breadth, Reed could provide a grant for transforming First Amendment doctrine and limiting government power to enforce reasonable regulations. Its broad test for what counts as a content-based regulation of speech risks destabilizing vast swaths of the regulatory state by requiring more regulations to stand up to strict scrutiny when faced with a First Amendment challenge.

But it need not be this way. Reed itself does not necessitate such a broad interpretation. Reed can be distinguished up, down, and sideways. Down, by deeming a regulation to cover conduct rather than speech, thereby subjecting it to rational basis review. Sideways, by pushing Reed aside in evaluating challenges to regulations of commercial speech — and preserving the Central Hudson45×45. Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557 (1980). standard of intermediate scrutiny. And up, by finding the regulation to be content neutral or by diluting the standard of strict scrutiny.46×46. This last move, diluting strict scrutiny, is the most dangerous. See infra section II.C, pp. 1992–98. This Part addresses each of these dimensions of distinction in turn.47×47. The order in which these dimensions are considered (down then sideways then up) provides, perhaps, a best-practice approach for a court considering a First Amendment challenge after Reed: First, determine whether the regulation addresses conduct rather than speech. If it covers speech, determine whether the regulation addresses commercial speech. Only when the answer to the first two questions is decisively “no” should courts confront content analysis under Reed. It marshals lower-court decisions addressing Reed48×48. In just its first six months, Reed was cited in fifty-six cases, including ten decisions by eight different federal Courts of Appeals. to suggest that lower courts’ interpretations of Reed have narrowed the case’s reach in a manner consistent with the majority opinion’s text.

A. Distinguishing Reed Down: The Speech/Conduct Divide

Seeing in Reed a valuable ally in the fight against regulation, creative First Amendment advocates have challenged general economic regulations as impermissible content-based restrictions on speech. Reed thus risks becoming the strongest and shiniest arrow in the quiver of those seeking to Lochnerize the First Amendment.49×49. It is not clear to what degree strength or shine are attractive qualities in an arrow, but one hopes the point is sufficiently sharp. But unlike regulations of speech, which at least raise the specter of government censorship and thus risk impinging protected First Amendment values, general regulations of economic behavior do not and should not raise First Amendment concerns.50×50. Bracketing, for our purposes, expressive conduct, where a communicative function is implicated by particular conduct. See, e.g., United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968); see also Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

On its face, Reed should not apply to regulations of conduct. Reed did not address a regulation of conduct, nor does the text of the majority opinion suggest that it should apply to such regulations. In Reed, the Town of Gilbert’s Sign Code distinguished between different types of signs — a canonical First Amendment medium — on the basis of the language they contained.51×51. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2224–25 (2015). The speech/conduct distinction was not at issue in Reed, and while the decision might be interpreted to reflect increasing skepticism from the Court over regulations of speech, it says nothing about extending the First Amendment to cover regulations of conduct.

Two conflicting cases interpreting Reed from the Second and Eleventh Circuits illustrate the importance of the threshold determination of whether a regulation governs speech or conduct. The cases address First Amendment challenges to state laws prohibiting merchants from charging higher prices to customers paying with credit cards than to those paying with cash. These two cases illuminate Reed’s potential reach and also how courts have distinguished the decision down by refusing to apply it to regulations of conduct with only tenuous connections to speech.

In Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman,52×52. 808 F.3d 118 (2d Cir. 2015). the Second Circuit held that Reed did not apply in a challenge to New York’s antisurcharge regulation, as it was a regulation of conduct, not speech.53×53. Id. at 132, 134–35. The court noted explicitly that Reed did not impact the threshold speech v. conduct determination, as it only applied to regulations of speech54×54. Id. at 132 (deeming content analysis, as exemplified by Reed, “of no relevance whatsoever with respect to the threshold question whether the restriction at issue regulates speech or, instead, conduct”). and that the law at issue only addressed whether a merchant could charge customers more for using credit cards.55×55. See id. at 131–32. The court treated the law as a regulation of prices, and in particular the relationship between prices, rather than as a regulation of the seller’s speech in describing its prices. Judge Livingston explained: “Plaintiffs’ chief error . . . is their bewildering persistence in equating the actual imposition of a credit-card surcharge . . . with the words that speakers of English have chosen to describe that pricing scheme (i.e., the term ‘credit-card surcharge’).”56×56. Id. Distinguishing between the regulatory burden itself and its relationship to the speech allegedly infringed helps illuminate the distinction between conduct and speech.

In Dana’s Railroad Supply v. Florida,57×57. 807 F.3d 1235 (11th Cir. 2015). the Eleventh Circuit reached a contrary conclusion, treating a similar regulation as a restriction on speech and finding that the regulation did not satisfy heightened scrutiny.58×58. See id. at 1246. The Eleventh Circuit left open the possibility that the statute in question might be given more leeway as a regulation on commercial speech, finding no need to decide the category question as the court believed that the law did not satisfy any heightened level of scrutiny. Id. This move, leaving undecided the appropriate level of First Amendment scrutiny where it would not change the result, is one practiced by the Court itself. See, e.g., Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2667 (2011). The Eleventh Circuit focused on the fact that the challenged Florida statute prohibited the imposition of a surcharge on customers paying by credit card while permitting a discount for those paying by cash.59×59. Dana’s R.R. Supply, 807 F.3d at 1247–48. The court argued that the distinction drawn by the regulation was purely semantic, making it a regulation of speech rather than conduct, and suggested that the regulation was “muddled by less savory notes of plain old-fashioned speech suppression.”60×60. Id. at 1247. However, in doing so, the court disregarded the fact that the actual regulation prohibited treating different customers differently based on their choice of payment method; it did not restrict vendors from describing any particular price as either a “surcharge” or a “discount.”61×61. Id. at 1245–46. The Eleventh Circuit’s elision repeats what Judge Livingston described as the plaintiff’s chief error in the analogous Second Circuit case — that is, equating a substantive regulatory impact with the words people choose to describe it.

On the surface, the conflict between the Second and Eleventh Circuits is not about the interpretation of Reed at all, but rather about the contours of the speech/conduct distinction. But on closer inspection, the two cases illustrate that after Reed, deeming a regulation to cover speech increases the likelihood that it will be subjected to strict scrutiny (and most likely invalidated) under Reed’s broadened standard. Thanks to Reed, the pre-game has become the game. Courts seeking to preserve the regulatory status quo where it does not raise genuine First Amendment concerns may find a ready escape hatch in the speech/conduct distinction.

Indeed, the Second Circuit is not alone in finding reasonable police-power regulations to be outside of Reed’s reach. In a number of early post-Reed challenges, other courts have similarly distinguished Reed down, finding a challenged regulation to cover conduct rather than speech and thereby avoiding a dispositive determination of whether Reed might require strict scrutiny.62×62. Though these cases do not rely on Reed in the predicate conduct v. speech determination, as Reed itself did not address this question, the decision’s shadow looms large: If the cases had treated the regulation as covering speech rather than conduct then Reed likely would have required the courts to apply strict scrutiny, or at the very least required wading into the interpretive uncertainty about what Reed does require. For example, the Ninth Circuit rejected First Amendment arguments brought by franchisors against Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance, instead treating the ordinance as an economic regulation that did not trigger any form of heightened scrutiny. Int’l Franchise Ass’n, Inc. v. City of Seattle, 803 F.3d 389, 409 (9th Cir. 2015) (upholding a lower court’s refusal to grant a preliminary injunction). And the Southern District of New York, in a challenge brought by a religious congregation seeking to build a rabbinical college, held that building the college was not itself speech entitled to First Amendment protection, even though it might “enable [such] speech.” Congregation Rabbinical Coll. of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 07-CV-6304(KMK), 2015 WL 5729783, at *51 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2015); see id. at *1. Similarly, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld as a regulation of conduct a criminal statute banning registered sex offenders from using commercial social networking websites accessible to minors. State v. Packingham, 777 S.E.2d 738, 741, 744 (N.C. 2015). The court there, however, noted that if the regulation were to govern speech, it would nonetheless be deemed content neutral under Reed. Id. at 745.

B. Distinguishing Reed Sideways: Commercial Speech

Even where a regulation addresses speech rather than conduct, Reed probably does not apply if the challenged regulation addresses only commercial speech. Historically, because of the strained relationship between commercial speech and the core values underpinning First Amendment protection, courts have subjected regulations of commercial speech to a standard of intermediate scrutiny rather than the oft-insurmountable barrier of strict scrutiny.63×63. See generally Victor Brudney, The First Amendment and Commercial Speech, 53 B.C. L. Rev. 1153 (2012).

Some have worried that Reed supplanted existing commercial speech doctrine.64×64. And with good reason, as Justice Thomas, who wrote for the Court in Reed, has elsewhere expressed his skepticism about weakened scrutiny for regulations of commercial speech. See Lorillard Tobacco Co. v. Reilly, 533 U.S. 525, 572 (2001) (Thomas, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment); 44 Liquormart, Inc. v. Rhode Island, 517 U.S. 484, 518 (1996) (Thomas, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). But Reed’s new rule for determining when a regulation is content based does not apply to the commercial speech context. First, the Supreme Court has already told us that regulations of commercial speech are content based but are categorically deserving of weakened scrutiny, so Reed’s new test for whether a regulation is content based is not relevant.65×65. See Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 562–63 (1980). Second, Reed itself provided no indication that it intended to upset this area of settled doctrine. Reed never considered regulations of commercial speech explicitly, as the challenged categories in the Town of Gilbert’s Sign Code involved noncommercial expression,66×66. See supra note 23 and accompanying text. nor did it address Central Hudson or the Court’s other commercial speech precedents. Lower courts can take the Supreme Court at its word (or rather, its silence) by distinguishing Reed sideways and continuing to evaluate challenges to regulations of commercial speech under intermediate scrutiny.

And that’s precisely what most lower courts considering challenges to commercial speech regulations after Reed have done. In one case, a federal district court found Reed inapposite in a challenge to an ordinance imposing requirements on negotiations between landlords and tenants.67×67. See S.F. Apartment Ass’n v. City & County of San Francisco, No. 15-cv-01545-PJH, 2015 WL 6747489, at *6–7 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 5, 2015). Stating that Reed “does not concern commercial speech,”68×68. Id. at *7. the court considered the ordinance as a regulation on commercial speech and concluded that it satisfied intermediate scrutiny under Central Hudson.69×69. Id. at *6, *9. Similarly, another federal district court upheld under Central Hudson a statute prohibiting healthcare providers from soliciting people involved in motor vehicle accidents, finding that “[b]ecause the [statute] constrains only commercial speech, the strict scrutiny analysis of Reed is inapposite.”70×70. Chiropractors United for Research & Educ., LLC v. Conway, No. 3:15-CV-00556-GNS, 2015 WL 5822721, at *5 (W.D. Ky. Oct. 1, 2015). Even in contexts closely analogous to the facts of Reed, as in challenges to regulation of commercial signs and billboards, multiple courts have found Reed to be entirely immaterial and have instead applied intermediate scrutiny under Central Hudson.71×71. See Cal. Outdoor Equity Partners v. City of Corona, No. CV 15-03172 MMM (AGRx), 2015 WL 4163346, at *10 (C.D. Cal. July 9, 2015) (“Reed does not concern commercial speech . . . . The fact that Reed has no bearing on this case is abundantly clear from the fact that Reed does not even cite Central Hudson, let alone apply it.”); see also Peterson v. Village of Downers Grove, No. 14C9851, 2015 WL 8780560, at *10 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 14, 2015); Timilsina v. West Valley City, No. 2:14-cv-00046-DN-EJF, 2015 WL 4635453, at *7 (D. Utah Aug. 3, 2015); Contest Promotions, LLC v. City & County of San Francisco, No. 15-cv-00093-SI, 2015 WL 4571564, at *4 (N.D. Cal. July 28, 2015). Perhaps the strongest statement about Reed’s inapplicability in the commercial speech context comes from the Northern District of California: “The Supreme Court has clearly made a distinction between commercial speech and noncommercial speech, and nothing in its recent opinions, including Reed, even comes close to suggesting that that well-established distinction is no longer valid.”72×72. CTIA-The Wireless Ass’n v. City of Berkeley, No. C-15-2529 EMC, 2015 WL 5569072, at *10 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 21, 2015) (citation omitted) (rejecting a First Amendment challenge to an ordinance requiring cell-phone retailers to provide notice to customers regarding radiofrequency emissions).

A more troubling application of the commercial/noncommercial distinction after Reed came in the trademark context. In In re Tam,73×73. 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc). the Federal Circuit struck down as content based a section of the Lanham Act allowing the Patent and Trademark Office to deny registration to a disparaging mark.74×74. Id. at 1334–36. In doing so, the court tripped over itself to separate the commercial and expressive aspects of trademark registration — a distinction contested hotly in a dissent.75×75. See id. at 1337–39; id. at 1376 (Reyna, J., dissenting). The Federal Circuit’s willingness to treat trademark registration as a hybrid act of commercial and noncommercial speech seems an unprecedented and dangerous way to erode commercial speech doctrine by transforming the relevant unit of analysis. See id. at 1377 (“[T]he Supreme Court has routinely held that various examples of speech ‘constitute commercial speech notwithstanding the fact that they contain discussions of important public issues.’” (quoting Bolger v. Youngs Drug Prods. Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 67–68 (1983))). In re Tam, while confirming the vitality of intermediate scrutiny for commercial speech after Reed, also suggests that courts must avoid classifying commercial speech as noncommercial given the enhanced likelihood that regulation of the latter is now vulnerable to strict scrutiny.76×76. Similarly, in Rosemond v. Markham, No. 13-42-GFVT, 2015 WL 5769091 (E.D. Ky. Sept. 30, 2015), the court relied on Reed to find a regulation of professional conduct to be content based as applied to a nonprofessional, id. at *7. However, the court in that case nonetheless retained a strong commercial/noncommercial distinction, maintaining that the regulation would likely have had to satisfy only intermediate scrutiny if it were to be treated as commercial speech. See id. at *10.

C. Distinguishing Reed Up (or Not at All): Noncommercial Speech

Reed’s impact will be most strongly felt in challenges to regulations closely analogous to the facts of Reed itself: regulations of noncommercial speech. Reed will likely require future courts to analyze such regulations as content based and subject to strict scrutiny. Since the Court’s decision, most cases with fact patterns closely analogous to Reed’s — challenges to other sign codes or regulations of noncommercial person-to-person communication — have resulted in invalidation of the challenged regulation. However, there remain two paths to distinguishing Reed up: First, and more problematically, by deeming a regulation content based under Reed but finding that it satisfies strict scrutiny. Second, by finding regulations to be content neutral, notwithstanding the feared post-Reed squeeze-out of the zone of content-neutral regulations.

Most directly, lower courts post Reed have found sign regulations that treat different types of noncommercial communication differently to be content based and have invalidated them under strict scrutiny.77×77. See, e.g., Cent. Radio Co. v. City of Norfolk, No. 13-1996, 13-1997, 2016 WL 360775, at *4–8 (4th Cir. Jan. 29, 2016); Marin v. Town of Southeast, No. 14-CV-2094 (KMK), 2015 WL 5732061, at *13–17 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2015). Courts have even signaled receptivity to Reed challenges to sign ordinances where they have not been raised.78×78. For example, a state court in Oregon, though “not presented with any First Amendment issues,” nonetheless noted that “as of the close of the 2014 term of the United States Supreme Court, it is fairly clear that the [county sign code is] vulnerable to invalidation . . . under the First Amendment.” State ex rel Icon Groupe, LLC v. Washington County, 359 P.3d 269, 275 n.7 (Or. Ct. App. 2015).

At the extreme, one lower court even interpreted Reed so broadly as to run afoul of a clear limitation imposed by Justice Alito’s concurrence. In Thomas v. Schroer,79×79. 116 F. Supp. 3d 869 (W.D. Tenn. 2015). the District Court for the Western District of Tennessee found that a sign code distinguishing between off-premises and on-premises signs was content based,80×80. Id. at 876 (“Similar to the sign code exemptions in Reed, . . . [t]he only way to determine whether a sign is an on-premise sign, is to consider the content of the sign and determine whether that content is sufficiently related to the ‘activities conducted on the property on which they are located.’ Consequently, under the Reed test, the on-premise exemption is facially content-based.” (quoting Billboard Regulation and Control Act of 1972, Tenn. Code Ann. § 54-21-104 (2012))). even though Justice Alito described the off-premises/on-premises distinction as content neutral.81×81. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2233 (2015) (Alito, J., concurring). This decision — though perhaps an outlier82×82. See Contest Promotions, LLC v. City & County of San Francisco, No. 15-cv-00093-SI, 2015 WL 4571564, at *4 (N.D. Cal. July 28, 2015) (“[A]t least six Justices continue to believe that regulations that distinguish between on-site and off-site signs are not content-based . . . .”). Regulations distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs should probably be treated as content-neutral regulations of place as the very same sign is treated differently only because of the location in which it is placed. Cf. Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego, 453 U.S. 490, 511 (1981) (plurality opinion). — illustrates the inconsistency between the Reed majority’s far-ranging reasoning and Justice Alito’s attempt to identify exceptions.83×83. The same district court said as much in a later opinion: “Justice Alito’s concurrence in Reed is inapposite to the instant analysis. Not only is the concurrence not binding precedent, but the concurrence fails to provide any analytical background as to why an on-premise exemption would be content neutral. The concurrence’s unsupported conclusions ring hollow in light of the majority opinion’s clear instruction . . . .” Thomas v. Schroer, No. 2:13-cv-02987-JPM-cgc, 2015 WL 5231911, at *5 (W.D. Tenn. Sept. 8, 2015). In yet another opinion, the court made clear in the qualified immunity context that this broad interpretation of Reed ought to be “clearly established going forward.” Thomas v. Schroer, No. 2:13-CV-02987-JPM, 2015 WL 5797599, at *15 (W.D. Tenn. Oct. 2, 2015).

Such reasoning also imperils the federal Highway Beautification Act,84×84. Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-285, § 101, 79 Stat. 1028 (codified at 23 U.S.C. § 131 (2012)). which conditions the grant of a state’s federal highway funds on the state’s regulation of outdoor signs near highways.85×85. See id. The federal government filed an amicus brief in Reed expressing its concern for the future of the Act.86×86. See Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Petitioners at 1, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015) (No. 13-502), 2014 WL 4726504, at *1. The federal government argued against strict scrutiny for the Sign Code, id. at 24–27, asserting that the Highway Beautification Act would survive intermediate scrutiny (even while the Sign Code would not), id. at 8, but not discussing whether the Highway Beautification Act would pass muster under strict scrutiny. Given the specificity of exceptions to the Highway Beautification Act — like its exception for signs advertising free coffee, 23 U.S.C. § 131(c)(5) — which certainly “appl[y] to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed,” Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2227, it is likely that a First Amendment challenge to the Highway Beautification Act would merit strict scrutiny, and succeed under Reed. Though no court has yet squarely considered a First Amendment challenge to the Highway Beautification Act’s sign regulations under Reed, such a challenge now seems inevitable.87×87. Justice Kagan noted in Reed that the majority’s reasoning puts the Act “in jeopardy.” Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2236 (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment). Indeed, the District Court for the Western District of Tennessee all but invited just such a challenge. See Thomas, 2015 WL 5231911, at *7.

Additionally, courts have generally deemed regulations governing noncommercial person-to-person communications to be content based under Reed.88×88. In general, regulations that target political speech, which lies at the heart of First Amendment protection, are (and probably ought to be) especially difficult to sustain after Reed. Several early post-Reed cases have confirmed this intuition. See Cahaly v. Larosa, 796 F.3d 399, 405–06 (4th Cir. 2015) (striking down a statute prohibiting political robocalls as content based under Reed); Rideout v. Gardner, No. 14-cv-489-PB, 2015 WL 4743731, at *9, *15 (D.N.H. Aug. 11, 2015) (striking down as content based a statute prohibiting voters from taking and disclosing pictures of completed election ballots); see also Commonwealth v. Lucas, 34 N.E.3d 1242, 1251–52, 1251 n.10 (Mass. 2015) (striking down a statute criminalizing certain false statements about political candidates, relying primarily on the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights but noting that Reed “casts additional doubt on the Commonwealth’s position,” id. at 1251 n.10). For example, multiple courts have invalidated antipanhandling regulations under Reed.89×89. See, e.g., Thayer v. City of Worcester, No. 13-40057-TSH, 2015 WL 6872450, at *1, *11–12 (D. Mass. Nov. 9, 2015) (invalidating as content based an ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to beg, panhandle or solicit in an aggressive manner,” id. at *1 (quoting Worcester, Mass., Revised Ordinances of 2008, ch. 9, § 16(d) (2008))); see also, e.g., Norton v. City of Springfield, 806 F.3d 411, 412–13 (7th Cir. 2015); McLaughlin v. City of Lowell, No. 14-10270-DPW, 2015 WL 6453144, at *4, *12 (D. Mass. Oct. 23, 2015); Browne v. City of Grand Junction, No. 14-cv-00809-CMA-KLM, 2015 WL 5728755, at *9–11 (D. Colo. Sept. 30, 2015). But see Watkins v. City of Arlington, No. 4:14-cv-381-O, 2015 WL 4755523, at *7 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2015) (finding that an ordinance that regulates all interactions between pedestrians and the occupants of vehicles stopped at traffic lights is content neutral). See generally Anthony Lauriello, Note, Reed v. Town of Gilbert and the Death of Panhandling Regulation, 116 Colum. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2666679 [http://perma.cc/73ZQ-25E6] (arguing that after Reed, virtually no panhandling regulations can withstand First Amendment scrutiny). Even broader second-generation antipanhandling ordinances drafted in the wake of Reed that attempt to satisfy its expanded standard are beginning to face successful First Amendment challenges.90×90. In an early post-Reed case, the Seventh Circuit reversed a previous decision and held that the City of Springfield’s ordinance prohibiting oral requests for money was content based and thus subject to strict scrutiny. Compare Norton, 806 F.3d at 412–13 (finding the regulation content based), with Norton v. City of Springfield, 768 F.3d 713, 717–18 (7th Cir. 2014) (finding the regulation content neutral). After the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, the City recrafted the antipanhandling ordinance. Norton v. City of Springfield, No. 15-3276, 2015 WL 8023461, at *1 (C.D. Ill. Dec. 4, 2015). The revised statute closely mirrored the Colorado statute providing for floating buffer zones around individuals visiting abortion clinics upheld by the Supreme Court in Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703, 707 (2000). But cf. McCullen v. Coakley, 134 S. Ct. 2518, 2545 (2014) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment) (concluding that Hill ought to be overruled).
The revised Springfield ordinance was again challenged as content based under Reed. See Norton, 2015 WL 8023461, at *1. The district court denied the City’s motion to dismiss, finding that unlike the statute in Hill, the revised Springfield ordinance “allows solicitations . . . unless the speaker is making a vocal appeal for an immediate donation. Because the Springfield ordinance prohibits this type of speech in the designated area while allowing other types, the Court must conclude it is content-based.” Id. at *2.
Similar challenges have been successfully mounted against ordinances prohibiting solicitation in a pedestrian-only historic district,91×91. FF Cosmetics FL Inc. v. City of Miami Beach, No. 14-cv-22072-KING, 2015 WL 5145548 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 31, 2015). prohibiting solicitation of day labor,92×92. Centro de la Comunidad Hispana v. Town of Oyster Bay, No. 10-CV-2262 (DRH), 2015 WL 5178147 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2015). and requiring a license for door-to-door solicitation.93×93. Working America, Inc. v. City of Bloomington, No. 14-1758 ADM/SER, 2015 WL 6756089 (D. Minn. Nov. 4, 2015).

These cases nicely illustrate how content analysis unmoored from context places regulators in a bind. Rather than limiting the amount of protected speech subject to government regulation, Reed requires legislatures to regulate all speech in order to regulate any speech.94×94. Though to the extent that antipanhandling ordinances have the effect of criminalizing homelessness and poverty, legislators might consider reallocating resources away from speech regulation in any form and toward more constructive and inclusive programs for alleviating the root causes of financial and social marginalization. See Nat’l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty, No Safe Place 20–21, https://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place [http://perma.cc/JKV5-6XW6]. See generally Matthew Desmond, Evicted (2016).

One path to distinguishing Reed up is for courts to find that a challenged regulation is content based but nonetheless satisfies strict scrutiny. However, this approach risks weakening the protection of speech at the heart of the First Amendment by offering a version of strict scrutiny that is strict in name only.95×95. See Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2235 (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment) (“I recognize that the Court could escape the problem by watering down the force of the presumption against constitutionality that ‘strict scrutiny’ normally carries with it. But, in my view, doing so will weaken the First Amendment’s protection in instances where ‘strict scrutiny’ should apply in full force.”). A panel of the Eleventh Circuit followed this path in the so-called “Docs vs. Glocks” challenge to a law limiting doctors’ ability to ask about and record patients’ firearm ownership,96×96. See Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Fla., No. 12-14009, 2015 WL 8639875 (11th Cir. Dec. 14, 2015), reh’g en banc granted, No. 12-14009 (11th Cir. Feb. 3, 2016). The court found that under Reed, the regulation was content based as “it applies to speech based on the ‘topic discussed.’” Id. at *19 (quoting Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2227 (2015)). However, the court found that the statute nonetheless satisfied strict scrutiny. Id. at *24–31. The court considered, but did not decide, whether the law ought to be subjected to less rigorous scrutiny as a regulation on professional speech, while also noting that “[b]roadly reading the Supreme Court’s recent Reed decision may suggest that any and all content-based regulations, including commercial and professional speech, are now subject to strict scrutiny.” Id. at *24. but the decision has been vacated pending rehearing en banc.97×97. Not only does this case illustrate the risk of a weakened strict scrutiny standard, it also shows the huge danger of letting Second Amendment culture trump First Amendment protections. See Eugene Volokh, Can Florida Restrict Doctors’ Speech to Patients About Guns?, Wash. Post: Volokh Conspiracy (Feb. 4, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/02/04/can-florida-restrict-doctors-speech-to-patients-about-guns [http://perma.cc/7FFB-4DXJ].

Finally, while Reed expanded the zone of content-based regulations, it did not totally eliminate the possibility that some carefully crafted regulations may yet be deemed content neutral. At least six Justices — the three who concurred in the judgment (Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg) along with Justice Alito and the two who joined his concurring opinion (Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor) — are open to finding reasonable sign regulations to be content neutral, even if the reasoning of the Reed majority opinion might suggest otherwise.98×98. Compare Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2233 (Alito, J., concurring), and id. at 2238–39 (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment), with id. at 2227–28 (majority opinion). While counting to five may be the best way to predict the results of a future Supreme Court challenge, in the interim, lower courts are bound by the opinion of the Court.

Following Reed, a handful of lower courts have found regulations of speech to be content neutral and have thus evaluated them under intermediate scrutiny.99×99. Early evidence also suggests that the secondary effects doctrine — another categorical carveout from unitary application of content analysis — also survived Reed. The secondary effects doctrine allows “intermediate rather than strict scrutiny” for zoning ordinances that are facially content based (especially so after Reed) but are “designed to decrease secondary effects and not speech.” City of Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, Inc., 535 U.S. 425, 448 (2002) (Kennedy, J., concurring in the judgment). The doctrine is a contested exception to content analysis that has largely been limited to the context of sexually explicit speech. See Kathleen M. Sullivan, Sex, Money, and Groups: Free Speech and Association Decisions in the October 1999 Term, 28 Pepp. L. Rev. 723, 730 (2001). The Seventh Circuit, in a challenge brought by the would-be proprietors of an adult-entertainment venue to a zoning ordinance prohibiting new “sexually oriented businesses” from operating within 750 feet of a residence, rejected the possibility that Reed “upend[ed] established doctrine for evaluating regulation of businesses that offer sexually explicit entertainment.” BBL, Inc. v. City of Angola, 809 F.3d 317, 326 n.1 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 292 (2000) (plurality opinion)). In a case that had been GVR-ed (granted, vacated, and remanded) by the Supreme Court after Reed, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that restrictions on the height and size of signs were content neutral.100×100. See Herson v. City of Richmond, No. 11–18028, 2016 WL 284430, at *1 n.1 (9th Cir. Jan. 22, 2016). Another court deemed a ban on painted wall signs to be content neutral.101×101. Peterson v. Village of Downers Grove, No. 14C9851, 2015 WL 8780560, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 14, 2015). The First Circuit held that an ordinance prohibiting standing, sitting, staying, driving, or parking on median traffic strips was content neutral because it “does not take aim at — or give special favor to — any type of messages conveyed in such a place because of what the message says.”102×102. Cutting v. City of Portland, 802 F.3d 79, 85 (1st Cir. 2015). The court nonetheless invalidated the ordinance as an impermissible regulation of speech in a public forum. See id. at 83, 92. Similarly, the District Court for the Northern District of Texas found a regulation that prohibited all pedestrians from soliciting, selling, or distributing materials to occupants of cars stopped at traffic lights to be content neutral.103×103. Watkins v. City of Arlington, No. 4:14-cv-381-O, 2015 WL 4755523, at *7 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 12, 2015). The decision, however, did not give much consideration to Reed, citing it only in its description of the plaintiffs’ position and not relying on it in its analysis. Id. at *5. Given that the ordinance covered solicitation, it would have been difficult to distinguish Reed down (claiming the ordinance regulated only conduct); and since it covered both commercial and noncommercial solicitation — the plaintiffs were advocating for gun rights — it would also have been difficult to distinguish Reed sideways. Id. at *1. And in the Northern District of Illinois, an ordinance prohibiting peddling on public sidewalks adjacent to a stadium was deemed content neutral.104×104. Left Field Media LLC v. City of Chicago, No. 15C3115, 2015 WL 5881604, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 5, 2015). In two other examples involving firearm regulations, courts have deemed the regulations in question to be content neutral,105×105. In one case, a district court rejected a challenge brought by a nonprofit that designed 3D-printed firearms to a law restricting disclosure of “technical data” relating to “defense articles.” Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep’t of State, No. 1-15-CV-372 RP, 2015 WL 4658921, at *1 (W.D. Tex. Aug. 4, 2015) (quoting 22 C.F.R. § 120.6 (2015)). In the other case, a Texas state court considered and rejected a First Amendment challenge to a law prohibiting an individual from carrying a handgun in a vehicle at any time the individual displays an identifying gang sign or symbol. The court, mentioning Reed only in passing, found the regulation to be content neutral and held that “[a]lthough the content of the sign or symbol might need to be examined to determine whether it is identifying, such an examination does not violate the First Amendment.” Ex parte Flores, No. 14-14-00663-CR, 2015 WL 6948828, at *3 n.2 (Tex. App. Nov. 10, 2015); see also id. at *3. in one case by apparently ignoring Reed’s rule for determining whether a regulation is content based.106×106. In Defense Distributed, the court relied on a pre-Reed decision from the Fifth Circuit holding that “[a] regulation is not content-based . . . merely because the applicability of the regulation depends on the content of the speech.” 2015 WL 4658921, at *7 (quoting Asgeirsson v. Abbott, 696 F.3d 454, 459 (5th Cir. 2012)). This line of reasoning seems to conflict directly with Reed’s assertion that “regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.” Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2227 (2015). These cases suggest that though Reed increased the likelihood that a regulation will be deemed content based, it did not entirely eliminate the possibility that legislators and regulators may yet craft satisfactory content-neutral regulations.

III. Reed’s Impact on First Amendment Doctrinal Architecture

At the level of doctrinal architecture, rather than revolutionizing free speech doctrine, Reed has instead been absorbed into the doctrine’s fragmentary status quo. By further exposing the warts of content analysis as an organizing heuristic, Reed may have pushed courts to develop new ways to avoid the strict scrutiny it seems to demand. This Part claims that this may be a desirable outcome, and advocates against courts treating Reed as a warrant for deregulation through First Amendment litigation.

The content distinction has traditionally been seen as a proxy for identifying impermissible government restrictions on speech. But in Reed, the majority disavowed the connection between enhanced scrutiny for content-based regulations and concern for impermissible government suppression of speech. Where the application of a law “depend[s] entirely on the communicative content” of covered speech, it will be deemed content based and subject to strict scrutiny.107×107. Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2227. This approach gave no heed to the possibility of purely benign government motives and the absence of any indication of state suppression of protected speech.108×108. See id. at 2228. That is, Reed goes far beyond just affecting viewpoint-based regulations of speech — like a regulation that treats pro-life and pro-choice signs differently. Such regulations ought to be invalidated for impairing the ability of a particular perspective to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Reed also mandates equal treatment for positions that don’t compete against each other in any meaningful way — say, a regulation that treats signs backing a pro-life position differently from signs advertising free coffee.109×109. Cf. Martin H. Redish, The Content Distinction in First Amendment Analysis, 34 Stan. L. Rev. 113, 139 (1981) (“When distinctions are drawn between commercial and political speech, or . . . other forms of expression, it makes little sense to criticize the distinctions solely because different forms of speech are receiving unequal treatment.” (citations omitted)).

After Reed, any law that draws content-based distinctions may be suspect, including numerous regulations that are entirely unproblematic from the perspective of concern for suppression of democracy-enhancing speech. Whether or not the content distinction was an effective proxy for identifying impermissible regulations of speech in the first place (and most believe that it was not110×110. See, e.g., McDonald, supra note 20, at 1430 (describing how the content-based approach has “caused the Court to develop and employ often inconsistent, unprincipled, or ad hoc rules to allow it to reach common sense results in many cases where those results would otherwise be elusive under current doctrine”). ), courts might no longer have the flexibility to treat its invocation as anything other than outcome determinative. This is especially troubling given that strict scrutiny review of every local regulation will both cripple the ability of local governments to run smoothly111×111. See Reed, 135 S. Ct. at 2237 (Kagan, J., concurring in the judgment). and expend limited judicial resources on active antidemocratic deregulation.112×112. See id. at 2239.

With Reed, the Court risked imposing a unitary standard of strict scrutiny for nearly all regulations of speech — and regulations of conduct that litigants could convince a court to treat as regulations of speech.113×113. See supra p. 1989. In doing so, the Court elevated its concern for rule-bound doctrine over sensitivity to facts on the ground and the purposes underlying enhanced First Amendment protection.114×114. In this sense, the interpretive tension over content analysis mirrors the conflict over the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment between those who would interpret the clause to be color blind and those who believe that the clause embodies an antisubordination ideal. See Parents Involved in Cmty. Schs. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); see also Kendrick, supra note 12, at 286–96. Using Reed to extend the full protection of the First Amendment to challenge regulation of commercial speech or, even more drastically, general economic regulation, would result in a wholesale restructuring of well-settled free speech doctrine without any accompanying justification.115×115. See Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980); United States v. Carolene Prods. Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152 & n.4 (1938).

This doctrinal devolution is concerning given the likely beneficiaries of expanded free speech protection. The modern First Amendment has two faces: it is (too rarely) a great shield protecting civil rights and “free[ing] men from the bondage of irrational fears”116×116. Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 376 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring). and (too often) a gilded sword advancing moneyed interests against reasonable government regulation.117×117. See, e.g., Coates, supra note 2, at 224; Shanor, supra note 2 (manuscript at 20–28). By divorcing content from context and not differentiating between civil and economic rights, a content-blind approach to First Amendment protection further increases the cost and difficulty of regulation without any corresponding reduction of impermissible government suppression of protected speech. To be clear, a narrow interpretation of Reed protects the First Amendment where underlying policy justifies its application, but prevents its weaponization as a libertarian lance against reasonable regulation.

The Reed decision thus brings to the surface the underlying problems with the content distinction as a governing superstructure for free speech doctrine.118×118. See Ashutosh Bhagwat, Reed v. Town of Gilbert: Signs of (Dis)Content?, 9 N.Y.U. J.L. & Liberty 137, 144 (2015) (describing “developing (albeit subterranean) discomfort” with enhanced scrutiny for content-based regulations in the context of the lower court decisions in Reed). In a very recent piece, Professor Bhagwat argues that the “all-speech-is-equal principle” implicit in strict content analysis is in “deep tension” with the premise that “the primary purpose of the First Amendment is to advance democratic self-governance”; he argues that “it is time to rethink our hostility to all content regulation, and consider whether a more nuanced approach is required.” Ashutosh Avinash Bhagwat, In Defense of Content Regulation (manuscript at 3) (Feb. 10, 2016), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2730936 [http://perma.cc/BX62-AL2C]. As a threshold matter, if the Court is concerned with government officials using content-based regulations as a vehicle for ideologically discriminatory treatment,119×119. See Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 135 S. Ct. 2218, 2229 (2015). that discriminatory treatment should be challenged outright; it should not be assumed that it flows necessarily from reasonable line-drawing in statutory text. And to the extent that a concern for equality motivates the shift to a liberal identification of content-based regulations,120×120. See, e.g., Kenneth L. Karst, Equality as a Central Principle in the First Amendment, 43 U. Chi. L. Rev. 20, 21 (1975). the Court’s all-or-nothing approach to regulation — requiring the state to regulate everything in order to regulate anything — treads even more harshly on competing First Amendment values.121×121. Not to mention the possibility of overbreadth. See Redish, supra note 109, at 135–38.

Mercifully, then, Reed is not the end of the story. As discussed above, lower courts have resisted Reed’s potential to require a unitary standard of strict scrutiny and upend settled First Amendment doctrine. To the extent that lower court reception of Reed is beginning to define a doctrinal equilibrium, Reed’s impact has been narrow.

Lower court cases have shown that adopting a narrow interpretation of Reed may prove difficult in certain areas. In challenges to sign codes and antipanhandling regulations, for example, courts have generally found Reed to apply and have struck down many such regulations.122×122. There, where regulations specifically treat certain communications differently on the basis of their content, Reed’s command to apply strict scrutiny is harder to avoid. But for other challenges brought under Reed to broader police power regulations, Reed seems to be readily distinguishable up, down, and sideways. Up, by finding that Reed applies, but nonetheless deeming the regulation content neutral, or else applying a diluted strict-scrutiny analysis.123×123. But see supra pp. 1995–96. Down, by finding that the challenged law regulates not speech, but instead conduct, and thus subjecting it to rationality review.124×124. Renewed focus on the relatively ill-defined conduct/speech distinction could limit the need to consider challenges to such regulations under Reed’s strict scrutiny. See supra pp. 1987–90. And sideways, by finding that preexisting doctrine continues to allow weakened First Amendment review in certain predetermined doctrinal categories, like commercial speech.125×125. See supra note 71; p. 1991.

These limits can also guide legislators and regulators seeking to draft statutes and regulations that will be protected from First Amendment challenges in Reed’s wake. First, regulations that can be characterized as governing conduct rather than speech ought to say as much explicitly. Second, regulations of speech that can be focused only on commercial speech will likely be protected as outside Reed’s reach. Finally, where noncommercial speech must be regulated, legislators should attempt to do so without reference to the content of the regulated speech, perhaps taking Justice Alito’s concurrence in Reed as a starting point.126×126. Though unlike the commercial speech workaround, which required narrowing the realm of regulated activity in order to satisfy First Amendment scrutiny, the solution for regulating noncommercial speech requires broadening proposed regulations to ensure that they include all such speech regardless of its content. See generally Alan C. Weinstein & Brian J. Connolly, Sign Regulation After Reed: Suggestions for Coping with Legal Uncertainty (manuscript at 49–64) (Sept. 14, 2015), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2660404 [http://perma.cc/4CV7-UJTW] (providing more specific guidance for local governments).

Reed thus appears to have further fragmented First Amendment doctrine, not unified it. Doctrinal pathology in First Amendment law may necessitate the preservation of a hyper-categorical approach, rather than the adoption of ad hoc balancing throughout. But by interpreting Reed narrowly, lower courts can better align First Amendment doctrine with the values it is meant to protect.

This divergence between Reed’s apparent doctrine and lower-court dispositions in turn complicates the values of stability and predictability that are meant to justify a rigid, categorical approach in the first place.127×127. Cf. Kendrick, supra note 12, at 234 (justifying rule-bound First Amendment doctrine on the basis of its predictability). While pushing toward a unitary standard of strict scrutiny ought to simplify the doctrine, resistance from the lower courts seems to suggest that Reed has instead induced more doctrinal gymnastics in order to stick the same landing.

This resistance will likely frustrate Court-focused doctrinalists. But given that it is consistent with Reed’s language (if not its deregulatory spirit), it may be a feature rather than a bug of our judicial system. Narrowing from below helps “domesticate potentially transformative rulings” and also “mitigate[s] the risk that bad facts or one-offs make permanently bad law.”128×128. Re, supra note 8 (manuscript at 49). Where lower courts find Supreme Court doctrine out of step with equity or common sense, narrow interpretation helps resist disruptive results and signals to the Court that it ought to revisit the issue.129×129. Professor Re suggests that this happened in the Second Amendment context after District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). See Re, supra note 8 (manuscript at 50–52). When the Court does revisit Reed, it might recognize the degree to which the First Amendment has been captured by the logic and lobby of economic libertarianism, and might consider whether it is desirable for the judiciary to be in the business of policing politically accountable regulation of commercial activity.

For First Amendment doctrine, Reed may have the perverse effect of diminishing the centrality of the content distinction. It may instead enhance the fact sensitivity of courts considering First Amendment challenges. By making clear the folly of elevating the content distinction over legitimate concerns about government suppression of speech for which it is meant to be a proxy, Reed may have sown the seeds of its own demise. Rather than erecting a doctrinal master concept, Reed may have reduced the category of content-based regulations to a mere collection of similar fact patterns, with little claim to legitimacy as a general analytic tool. It profits the Court nothing to give its soul for the whole world . . . but to deem more regulations content based?130×130. See Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons 158 (Vintage Int’l 1990) (1960); see also Wellness Int’l Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, 135 S. Ct. 1932, 1960 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting); Mark 8:36.