February 25, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Pleasant Grove City v. Summum

On February 25, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, No. 07-665.

A public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, contains 15 permanent monuments, most of which were provided by private groups or individuals, including a Ten Commandments monument donated by the local Eagles Club. Summum, a religious organization, sought permission to erect a similar monument in the park containing a statement of its religious "aphorisms." The city rejected this request and adopted a resolution limiting such monuments to those that either related directly to the city's history or were donated by groups with longstanding ties to the community. The question presented to the court was whether the city's refusal to accept Summum's monument violated its right of free speech. The court held that it did not, explaining that the city's placement of monuments in a public park was a form of speech by the government itself, which is not subject to the Free Speech Clause. And while a government cannot regulate speech by others in "traditional public forums" based on the content of the speech, that principle did not apply here, where the park property could accommodate only a limited number of permanent monuments without defeating its purpose. Under these circumstances, the city was permitted to exercise its judgment as to the monuments it would accept.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the court (one unusual feature of which is its quotation in a footnote of the entire lyrics to the John Lennon song, "Imagine"). Justice Stevens filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. Justice Scalia filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion. Justice Souter filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

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