507 U.S. 410
March 24, 1993, Decided

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Motivated by its interest in the safety and attractive appearance of its streets and sidewalks, the city of Cincinnati has refused to allow respondents to distribute their commercial publications through freestanding newsracks located on public property. The question presented is whether this refusal is consistent with the First Amendment. In agreement with the District Court and the Court of Appeals, we hold that it is not.


Respondent Discovery Network, Inc., is engaged in the business of providing adult educational, recreational, and social programs to individuals in the Cincinnati area. It advertises those programs in a free magazine that it publishes nine times a year. Although these magazines consist primarily of promotional material pertaining to Discovery's courses, they also include some information about current events of general interest. Approximately one-third of these magazines are distributed through the 38 newsracks that the city authorized Discovery to place on public property in 1989.

Respondent Harmon Publishing Company, Inc., publishes and distributes a free magazine that advertises real estate for sale at various locations throughout the United States. The magazine contains listings and photographs of available residential properties in the greater Cincinnati area, and also includes some information about interest rates, market trends, and other real estate matters. In 1989, Harmon received the city's permission to install 24 newsracks at approved locations. About 15% of its distribution in the Cincinnati area is through those devices.

In March 1990, the city's Director of Public Works notified each of the respondents that its permit to use dispensing devices on public property was revoked, and ordered the newsracks removed within 30 days. Each notice explained that respondent's publication was a "commercial handbill" within the meaning of the Municipal Code and therefore § 714-23 of the code prohibited its distribution on public property...Respondents then commenced this litigation in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.


There is no claim in this case that there is anything unlawful or misleading about the contents of respondents' publications. Moreover, respondents do not challenge their characterization as "commercial speech." Nor do respondents question the substantiality of the city's interest in safety and esthetics. It was, therefore, proper for the District Court and the Court of Appeals to judge the validity of the city's prohibition under the standards we set forth in Central Hudson and Fox. It was the city's burden to establish a "reasonable fit" between its legitimate interests in safety and esthetics and its choice of a limited and selective prohibition of newsracks as the means chosen to serve those interests.

There is ample support in the record for the conclusion that the city did not "establish the reasonable fit we require." The ordinance on which it relied was an outdated prohibition against the distribution of any commercial handbills on public property. It was enacted long before any concern about newsracks developed. Its apparent purpose was to prevent the kind of visual blight caused by littering, rather than any harm associated with permanent, freestanding dispensing devices. The fact that the city failed to address its recently developed concern about newsracks by regulating their size, shape, appearance, or number indicates that it has not "carefully calculated" the costs and benefits associated with the burden on speech imposed by its prohibition. The benefit to be derived from the removal of 62 newsracks while about 1,500-2,000 remain in place was considered "minute" by the District Court and "paltry" by the Court of Appeals. We share their evaluation of the "fit" between the city's goal and its method of achieving it.

In seeking reversal, the city argues that it is wrong to focus attention on the relatively small number of newsracks affected by its prohibition, because the city's central concern is with the overall number of newsracks on its sidewalks, rather than with the unattractive appearance of a handful of dispensing devices. It contends, first, that a categorical prohibition on the use of newsracks to disseminate commercial messages burdens no more speech than is necessary to further its interest in limiting the number of newsracks; and, second, that the prohibition is a valid "time, place, and manner" regulation because it is content neutral and leaves open ample alternative channels of communication. We consider these arguments in turn.


The city argues that there is a close fit between its ban on newsracks dispensing "commercial handbills" and its interests in safety and esthetics because every decrease in the number of such dispensing devices necessarily effects an increase in safety and an improvement in the attractiveness of the cityscape. In the city's view, the prohibition is thus entirely related to its legitimate interests in safety and esthetics.

We accept the validity of the city's proposition, but consider it an insufficient justification for the discrimination against respondents' use of newsracks that are no more harmful than the permitted newsracks, and have only a minimal impact on the overall number of newsracks on the city's sidewalks. The major premise supporting the city's argument is the proposition that commercial speech has only a low value. Based on that premise, the city contends that the fact that assertedly more valuable publications are allowed to use newsracks does not undermine its judgment that its esthetic and safety interests are stronger than the interest in allowing commercial speakers to have similar access to the reading public.

We cannot agree. In our view, the city's argument attaches more importance to the distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech than our cases warrant and seriously underestimates the value of commercial speech.

This very case illustrates the difficulty of drawing bright lines that will clearly cabin commercial speech in a distinct category. For respondents' publications share important characteristics with the publications that the city classifies as "newspapers." Particularly, they are "commercial handbills" within the meaning of § 714-1-C of the city's code because they contain advertising, a feature that apparently also places ordinary newspapers within the same category.  Presumably, respondents' publications do not qualify as newspapers because an examination of their content discloses a higher ratio of advertising to other text, such as news and feature stories, than is found in the exempted publications. Indeed, Cincinnati's City Manager has determined that publications that qualify as newspapers and therefore can be distributed by newsrack are those that are published daily and/or weekly and "primarily present coverage of, and commentary on, current events"....

We have stated that speech proposing a commercial transaction is entitled to lesser protection than other constitutionally guaranteed expression.  We have also suggested that such lesser protection was appropriate for a somewhat larger category of commercial speech -- "that is, expression related solely to the economic interests of the speaker and its audience." We did not, however, use that definition in either Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60 (1983), or in Board of Trustees of State University of N. Y. v. Fox, 492 U.S. 469 (1989).

In the Bolger case we held that a federal statute prohibiting the mailing of unsolicited advertisements for contraceptives could not be applied to the appellee's promotional materials. Most of the appellee's mailings consisted primarily of price and quantity information, and thus fell "within the core notion of commercial speech -- 'speech which does "no more than propose a commercial transaction."'" Relying in part on the appellee's economic motivation, the Court also answered the "closer question" about the proper label for informational pamphlets that were concededly advertisements referring to a specific product, and concluded that they also were "commercial speech." It is noteworthy that in reaching that conclusion we did not simply apply the broader definition of commercial speech advanced in Central Hudson -- a definition that obviously would have encompassed the mailings -- but rather "examined [them] carefully to ensure that speech deserving of greater constitutional protection is not inadvertently suppressed." In Fox, we described the category even more narrowly, by characterizing the proposal of a commercial transaction as "the test for identifying commercial speech."

Under the Fox test it is clear that much of the material in ordinary newspapers is commercial speech and, conversely, that the editorial content in respondents' promotional publications is not what we have described as "core" commercial speech. There is no doubt a "commonsense" basis for distinguishing between the two, but under both the city's code and our cases the difference is a matter of degree.

Nevertheless, for the purpose of deciding this case, we assume that all of the speech barred from Cincinnati's sidewalks is what we have labeled "core" commercial speech and that no such speech is found in publications that are allowed to use newsracks. We nonetheless agree with the Court of Appeals that Cincinnati's actions in this case run afoul of the First Amendment. Not only does Cincinnati's categorical ban on commercial newsracks place too much importance on the distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech, but in this case, the distinction bears no relationship whatsoever to the particular interests that the city has asserted. It is therefore an impermissible means of responding to the city's admittedly legitimate interests.

The city has asserted an interest in esthetics, but respondent publishers' newsracks are no greater an eyesore than the newsracks permitted to remain on Cincinnati's sidewalks. Each newsrack, whether containing "newspapers" or "commercial handbills," is equally unattractive. While there was some testimony in the District Court that commercial publications are distinct from noncommercial publications in their capacity to proliferate, the evidence of such was exceedingly weak. As we have explained, the city's primary concern, as argued to us, is with the aggregate number of newsracks on its streets. On that score, however, all newsracks, regardless of whether they contain commercial or noncommercial publications, are equally at fault. In fact, the newspapers are arguably the greater culprit because of their superior number.

Cincinnati has not asserted an interest in preventing commercial harms by regulating the information distributed by respondent publishers' newsracks, which is, of course, the typical reason why commercial speech can be subject to greater governmental regulation than noncommercial speech.

A closer examination of one of the cases we have mentioned, Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products, demonstrates the fallacy of the city's argument that a reasonable fit is established by the mere fact that the entire burden imposed on commercial speech by its newsrack policy may in some small way limit the total number of newsracks on Cincinnati's sidewalks. Here, the city contends that safety concerns and visual blight may be addressed by a prohibition that distinguishes between commercial and noncommercial publications that are equally responsible for those problems.....

In the absence of some basis for distinguishing between "newspapers" and "commercial handbills" that is relevant to an interest asserted by the city, we are unwilling to recognize Cincinnati's bare assertion that the "low value" of commercial speech is a sufficient justification for its selective and categorical ban on newsracks dispensing "commercial handbills." Our holding, however, is narrow. As should be clear from the above discussion, we do not reach the question whether, given certain facts and under certain circumstances, a community might be able to justify differential treatment of commercial and noncommercial newsracks. We simply hold that on this record Cincinnati has failed to make such a showing. Because the distinction Cincinnati has drawn has absolutely no bearing on the interests it has asserted, we have no difficulty concluding, as did the two courts below, that the city has not established the "fit" between its goals and its chosen means that is required by our opinion in Fox. It remains to consider the city's argument that its prohibition is a permissible time, place, and manner regulation.


The Court has held that government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of engaging in protected speech provided that they are adequately justified "'without reference to the content of the regulated speech.'"  Thus, a prohibition against the use of sound trucks emitting "loud and raucous" noise in residential neighborhoods is permissible if it applies equally to music, political speech, and advertising. The city contends that its regulation of newsracks qualifies as such a restriction because the interests in safety and esthetics that it serves are entirely unrelated to the content of respondents' publications. Thus, the argument goes, the justification for the regulation is content neutral.

The argument is unpersuasive because the very basis for the regulation is the difference in content between ordinary newspapers and commercial speech. True, there is no evidence that the city has acted with animus toward the ideas contained within respondents' publications, but just last Term we expressly rejected the argument that "discriminatory . . . treatment is suspect under the First Amendment only when the legislature intends to suppress certain ideas." Regardless of the mens rea of the city, it has enacted a sweeping ban on the use of newsracks that distribute "commercial handbills," but not "newspapers." Under the city's newsrack policy, whether any particular newsrack falls within the ban is determined by the content of the publication resting inside that newsrack. Thus, by any commonsense understanding of the term, the ban in this case is "content based"...

Cincinnati has enacted a sweeping ban that bars from its sidewalks a whole class of constitutionally protected speech. As did the District Court and the Court of Appeals, we conclude that Cincinnati has failed to justify that policy. The regulation is not a permissible regulation of commercial speech, for on this record it is clear that the interests that Cincinnati has asserted are unrelated to any distinction between "commercial handbills" and "newspapers." Moreover, because the ban is predicated on the content of the publications distributed by the subject newsracks, it is not a valid time, place, or manner restriction on protected speech. For these reasons, Cincinnati's categorical ban on the distribution, via newsrack, of "commercial handbills" cannot be squared with the dictates of the First Amendment.


Concerned about the safety and esthetics of its streets and sidewalks, the city of Cincinnati decided to do something about the proliferation of newsracks on its street corners. Pursuant to an existing ordinance prohibiting the distribution of "commercial handbills" on public property, the city ordered respondents Discovery Network, Inc., and Harmon Publishing Company, Inc., to remove their newsracks from its sidewalks within 30 days. Respondents publish and distribute free of charge magazines that consist principally of commercial speech. Together their publications account for 62 of the 1,500-2,000 newsracks that clutter Cincinnati's street corners. Because the city chose to address its newsrack problem by banning only those newsracks that disseminate commercial handbills, rather than regulating all newsracks (including those that disseminate traditional newspapers) alike, the Court holds that its actions violate the First Amendment to the Constitution. I believe this result is inconsistent with prior precedent.

"Our jurisprudence has emphasized that 'commercial speech [enjoys] a limited measure of protection, commensurate with its subordinate position in the scale of First Amendment values,' and is subject to 'modes of regulation that might be impermissible in the realm of noncommercial expression.'" We have advanced several reasons for this treatment, among which is that commercial speech is more durable than other types of speech, since it is "the offspring of economic self-interest." Commercial speech is also "less central to the interests of the First Amendment" than other types of speech, such as political expression.  Finally, there is an inherent danger that conferring equal status upon commercial speech will erode the First Amendment protection accorded noncommercial speech, "simply by a leveling process, of the force of the Amendment's guarantee with respect to the latter kind of speech."

In Central Hudson, we set forth the test for analyzing the permissibility of restrictions on commercial speech as follows:

"At the outset, we must determine whether the expression is protected by the First Amendment. For commercial speech to come within that provision, it at least must concern lawful activity and not be misleading. Next, we ask whether the asserted governmental interest is substantial. If both inquiries yield positive answers, we must determine whether the regulation directly advances the governmental interest asserted, and whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest."
I agree with the Court that the city's prohibition against respondents' newsracks is properly analyzed under Central Hudson, but differ as to the result this analysis should produce....

The relevant inquiry is not the degree to which the locality's interests are furthered in a particular case, but rather the relation that the challenged regulation of commercial speech bears to the "overall problem" the locality is seeking to alleviate. This follows from our test for reviewing the validity of "time, place, or manner" restrictions on noncommercial speech, which we have said is "substantially similar" to the Central Hudson analysis. Properly viewed, then, the city's prohibition against respondents' newsracks is directly related to its efforts to alleviate the problems caused by newsracks, since every newsrack that is removed from the city's sidewalks marginally enhances the safety of its streets and esthetics of its cityscape. This conclusion is not altered by the fact that the city has chosen to address its problem by banning only those newsracks that disseminate commercial speech, rather than regulating all newsracks alike.

Our commercial speech cases establish that localities may stop short of fully accomplishing their objectives without running afoul of the First Amendment....

If (as I am certain) Cincinnati may regulate newsracks that disseminate commercial speech based on the interests it has asserted, I am at a loss as to why its scheme is unconstitutional because it does not also regulate newsracks that disseminate noncommercial speech. One would have thought that the city, perhaps even following the teachings of our commercial speech jurisprudence, could have decided to place the burden of its regulatory scheme on less protected speech (i.e., commercial handbills) without running afoul of the First Amendment. Today's decision, though, places the city in the position of having to decide between restricting more speech -- fully protected speech -- and allowing the proliferation of newsracks on its street corners to continue unabated. It scarcely seems logical that the First Amendment compels such a result. In my view, the city may order the removal of all newsracks from its public right-of-ways if it so chooses. But however it decides to address its newsrack problem, it should be allowed to proceed in the manner and scope it sees fit so long as it does not violate established First Amendment principles, such as the rule against discrimination on the basis of content.

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