Amdt1. Content Based Regulation

First Amendment:

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.2The constitutionality of content-based regulation is determined by a compelling interest test derived from equal protection analysis: 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

Nonetheless, as discussed below, 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.16 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.17 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,18 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.19


  1.  Jump to essay-1Police 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).
  2.  Jump to essay-2United 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).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Ark. Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 231 (1987).
  4.  Jump to essay-4Sable Commc’ns of Cal. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989).
  5.  Jump to essay-5But 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).
  6.  Jump to essay-6See 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)).
  7.  Jump to essay-7See 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).
  8.  Jump to essay-8See 485 U.S. 312, 315 (1988).
  9.  Jump to essay-9See Ward, 491 U.S. at 791.
  10.  Jump to essay-10See 564 U.S. 552, 566 (2011).
  11.  Jump to essay-11See 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.).
  12.  Jump to essay-12See 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).
  13.  Jump to essay-13Id. 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.
  14.  Jump to essay-14Id. at 10.
  15.  Jump to essay-15Id.
  16.  Jump to essay-16See United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 468 (2010).
  17.  Jump to essay-17315 U.S. 568, 571–72 (1942).
  18.  Jump to essay-18See New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 759 (1982).
  19.  Jump to essay-19See, 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).