Pleasant Grove City v. Summum

555 U.S. _

Case Year: 2009

Case Ruling: 9-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Alito

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Souter, Stevens, Thomas


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Breyer


1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Scalia


2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Stevens


3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Located in the historic district of Pleasant Grove City, Utah, is Pioneer Park, a 2.5-acre public park. The park contains fifteen permanent displays, most of which were donated by private individuals or groups. Among the monuments are a historic granary, a wishing well, the city's first fire station, a September 11 memorial, and a Ten Commandments display donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971.

Summum is a Salt Lake City-based religious group. The organization traces its origins to 1975 when, according to his own account, Claude "Corky" Nowell, a supply company manager and member of the Mormon Church, began receiving visits from highly intelligent Summa beings. These beings shared with him knowledge of the nature of creation and the laws of the universe. Nowell legally changed his name to Summum Bonum Amen Ra and began to build an organization to teach others what he had learned.

Twice in 2003 Summum contacted the mayor of Pleasant Grove requesting permission to erect a permanent monument to the "Seven Aphorisms of SUMMUM" in Pioneer Park. Summum doctrine holds that the seven aphorisms were engraved on the original tablets Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, but which Moses destroyed when he realized that the people were not yet ready to accept their teachings. The proposed monument would be made of stone and be similar in size to the Ten Commandments monument. City officials denied the request, explaining that city policy restricted park monuments to those directly related to the history of Pleasant Grove or donated by groups with long-standing ties to the community. This previously unwritten policy was codified the next year and included the additional factors of safety and esthetics.

In 2005 Summum repeated its request, but did not attempt to support its petition with information about the proposed monument's historical significance or the group's connection to the city. Again, the city council rejected the request. In response, Summum filed suit, claiming that the city violated the group's free speech rights by allowing the Ten Commandments display but not the Summum monument. The federal district court ruled in favor of the city, but the court of appeals reversed. It held that because a park is a traditional public forum, the city could not deny the request unless it had a compelling justification that could not be served by a more narrowly tailored means. The Supreme Court granted the city's petition for certiorari.



This case presents the question whether the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment entitles a private group to insist that a municipality permit it to place a permanent monument in a city park in which other donated monuments were previously erected. The Court of Appeals held that the municipality was required to accept the monument because a public park is a traditional public forum. We conclude, however, that although a park is a traditional public forum for speeches and other transitory expressive acts, the display of a permanent monument in a public park is not a form of expression to which forum analysis applies. Instead, the placement of a permanent monument in a public park is best viewed as a form of government speech and is therefore not subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause.

No prior decision of this Court has addressed the application of the Free Speech Clause to a government entity's acceptance of privately donated, permanent monuments for installation in a public park, and the parties disagree sharply about the line of precedents that governs this situation. Petitioners contend that the pertinent cases are those concerning government speech. Respondent, on the other hand, agrees with the Court of Appeals panel that the applicable cases are those that analyze private speech in a public forum. The parties' fundamental disagreement thus centers on the nature of petitioners' conduct when they permitted privately donated monuments to be erected in Pioneer Park. Were petitioners engaging in their own expressive conduct? Or were they providing a forum for private speech?

If petitioners were engaging in their own expressive conduct, then the Free Speech Clause has no application. The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech; it does not regulate government speech. See Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Assn. (2005). A government entity has the right to "speak for itself." Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth (2000). "[I]t is entitled to say what it wishes," Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va.(1995), and to select the views that it wants to express. See Rust v. Sullivan (1991); National Endowment for Arts v. Finley(1998). Indeed, it is not easy to imagine how government could function if it lacked this freedom. . . .

A government entity may exercise this same freedom to express its views when it receives assistance from private sources for the purpose of delivering a government-controlled message.

This does not mean that there are no restraints on government speech. For example, government speech must comport with the Establishment Clause. The involvement of public officials in advocacy may be limited by law, regulation, or practice. And of course, a government entity is ultimately "accountable to the electorate and the political process for its advocacy." Southworth.

While government speech is not restricted by the Free Speech Clause, the government does not have a free hand to regulate private speech on government property. This Court long ago recognized that members of the public retain strong free speech rights when they venture into public streets and parks, "which have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions." Perry Ed. Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn. (1983). In order to preserve this freedom, government entities are strictly limited in their ability to regulate private speech in such "traditional public fora." Reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions are allowed, but any restriction based on the content of the speech must satisfy strict scrutiny, that is, the restriction must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest and restrictions based on viewpoint are prohibited.

With the concept of the traditional public forum as a starting point, this Court has recognized that members of the public have free speech rights on other types of government property and in certain other government programs that share essential attributes of a traditional public forum. We have held that a government entity may create "a designated public forum" if government property that has not traditionally been regarded as a public forum is intentionally opened up for that purpose. Government restrictions on speech in a designated public forum are subject to the same strict scrutiny as restrictions in a traditional public forum. The Court has also held that a government entity may create a forum that is limited to use by certain groups or dedicated solely to the discussion of certain subjects. In such a forum, a government entity may impose restrictions on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. See Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001).

There may be situations in which it is difficult to tell whether a government entity is speaking on its own behalf or is providing a forum for private speech, but this case does not present such a situation. Permanent monuments displayed on public property typically represent government speech.

Governments have long used monuments to speak to the public. . . . Neither the Court of Appeals nor respondent disputes the obvious proposition that a monument that is commissioned and financed by a government body for placement on public land constitutes government speech.

Just as government-commissioned and government-financed monuments speak for the government, so do privately financed and donated monuments that the government accepts and displays to the public on government land. It certainly is not common for property owners to open up their property for the installation of permanent monuments that convey a message with which they do not wish to be associated. And because property owners typically do not permit the construction of such monuments on their land, persons who observe donated monuments routinely--and reasonably--interpret them as conveying some message on the property owner's behalf. In this context, there is little chance that observers will fail to appreciate the identity of the speaker. This is true whether the monument is located on private property or on public property, such as national, state, or city park land. . . .

Public parks are often closely identified in the public mind with the government unit that owns the land. City parks--ranging from those in small towns, like Pioneer Park in Pleasant Grove City, to those in major metropolises, like Central Park in New York City--commonly play an important role in defining the identity that a city projects to its own residents and to the outside world. Accordingly, cities and other jurisdictions take some care in accepting donated monuments. Government decisionmakers select the monuments that portray what they view as appropriate for the place in question, taking into account such content-based factors as esthetics, history, and local culture. The monuments that are accepted, therefore, are meant to convey and have the effect of conveying a government message, and they thus constitute government speech.

In this case, it is clear that the monuments in Pleasant Grove's Pioneer Park represent government speech. Although many of the monuments were not designed or built by the City and were donated in completed form by private entities, the City decided to accept those donations and to display them in the Park. Respondent does not claim that the City ever opened up the Park for the placement of whatever permanent monuments might be offered by private donors. Rather, the City has "effectively controlled" the messages sent by the monuments in the Park by exercising "final approval authority" over their selection. The City has selected those monuments that it wants to display for the purpose of presenting the image of the City that it wishes to project to all who frequent the Park; it has taken ownership of most of the monuments in the Park, including the Ten Commandments monument that is the focus of respondent's concern; and the City has now expressly set forth the criteria it will use in making future selections.

Respondent voices the legitimate concern that the government speech doctrine not be used as a subterfuge for favoring certain private speakers over others based on viewpoint. Respondent's suggested solution is to require a government entity accepting a privately donated monument to go through a formal process of adopting a resolution publicly embracing "the message" that the monument conveys.

We see no reason for imposing a requirement of this sort. The parks of this country contain thousands of donated monuments that government entities have used for their own expressive purposes, usually without producing the sort of formal documentation that respondent now says is required to escape Free Speech Clause restrictions. Requiring all of these jurisdictions to go back and proclaim formally that they adopt all of these monuments as their own expressive vehicles would be a pointless exercise that the Constitution does not mandate. . . . What respondent demands, however, is that the City "adopt" or "embrace" "the message" that it associates with the monument. Respondent seems to think that a monument can convey only one "message"--which is, presumably, the message intended by the donor--and that, if a government entity that accepts a monument for placement on its property does not formally embrace that message, then the government has not engaged in expressive conduct. This argument fundamentally misunderstands the way monuments convey meaning. The meaning conveyed by a monument is generally not a simple one . . . . Even when a monument features the written word, the monument may be intended to be interpreted, and may in fact be interpreted by different observers, in a variety of ways. Monuments called to our attention by the briefing in this case illustrate this phenomenon.

What, for example, is "the message" of the Greco-Roman mosaic of the word "Imagine" that was donated to New York City's Central Park in memory of John Lennon? Some observers may "imagine" the musical contributions that John Lennon would have made if he had not been killed. Others may think of the lyrics of the Lennon song that obviously inspired the mosaic and may "imagine" a world without religion, countries, possessions, greed, or hunger. . . .

These text-based monuments are almost certain to evoke different thoughts and sentiments in the minds of different observers, and the effect of monuments that do not contain text is likely to be even more variable. . . .

Contrary to respondent's apparent belief, it frequently is not possible to identify a single "message" that is conveyed by an object or structure, and consequently, the thoughts or sentiments expressed by a government entity that accepts and displays such an object may be quite different from those of either its creator or its donor. By accepting a privately donated monument and placing it on city property, a city engages in expressive conduct, but the intended and perceived significance of that conduct may not coincide with the thinking of the monument's donor or creator. Indeed, when a privately donated memorial is funded by many small donations, the donors themselves may differ in their interpretation of the monument's significance. By accepting such a monument, a government entity does not necessarily endorse the specific meaning that any particular donor sees in the monument. . . .

The "message" conveyed by a monument may change over time. A study of war memorials found that "people reinterpret" the meaning of these memorials as "historical interpretations" and "the society around them changes."

A striking example of how the interpretation of a monument can evolve is provided by one of the most famous and beloved public monuments in the United States, the Statue of Liberty. The statue was given to this country by the Third French Republic to express republican solidarity and friendship between the two countries. At the inaugural ceremony, President Cleveland saw the statue as an emblem of international friendship and the widespread influence of American ideals. Only later did the statue come to be viewed as a beacon welcoming immigrants to a land of freedom.

Respondent and the Court of Appeals analogize the installation of permanent monuments in a public park to the delivery of speeches and the holding of marches and demonstrations, and they thus invoke the rule that a public park is a traditional public forum for these activities. But "public forum principles . . . are out of place in the context of this case." The forum doctrine has been applied in situations in which government-owned property or a government program was capable of accommodating a large number of public speakers without defeating the essential function of the land or the program. For example, a park can accommodate many speakers and, over time, many parades and demonstrations. . . .

By contrast, public parks can accommodate only a limited number of permanent monuments. Public parks have been used, "time out of mind, . . . for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions," but "one would be hard pressed to find a 'long tradition' of allowing people to permanently occupy public space with any manner of monuments."

Speakers, no matter how long-winded, eventually come to the end of their remarks; persons distributing leaflets and carrying signs at some point tire and go home; monuments, however, endure. They monopolize the use of the land on which they stand and interfere permanently with other uses of public space. A public park, over the years, can provide a soapbox for a very large number of orators--often, for all who want to speak--but it is hard to imagine how a public park could be opened up for the installation of permanent monuments by every person or group wishing to engage in that form of expression.

Respondent contends that this issue "can be dealt with through content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions, including the option of a ban on all unattended displays." . . .

. . . If government entities must maintain viewpoint neutrality in their selection of donated monuments, they must either "brace themselves for an influx of clutter" or face the pressure to remove longstanding and cherished monuments. Every jurisdiction that has accepted a donated war memorial may be asked to provide equal treatment for a donated monument questioning the cause for which the veterans fought. New York City, having accepted a donated statue of one heroic dog (Balto, the sled dog who brought medicine to Nome, Alaska, during a diphtheria epidemic) may be pressed to accept monuments for other dogs who are claimed to be equally worthy of commemoration. The obvious truth of the matter is that if public parks were considered to be traditional public forums for the purpose of erecting privately donated monuments, most parks would have little choice but to refuse all such donations. And where the application of forum analysis would lead almost inexorably to closing of the forum, it is obvious that forum analysis is out of place. . . .

In sum, we hold that the City's decision to accept certain privately donated monuments while rejecting respondent's is best viewed as a form of government speech. As a result, the City's decision is not subject to the Free Speech Clause, and the Court of Appeals erred in holding otherwise. We therefore reverse.

It is so ordered.


This case involves a property owner's rejection of an offer to place a permanent display on its land. While I join the Court's persuasive opinion, I think the reasons justifying the city's refusal would have been equally valid if its acceptance of the monument, instead of being characterized as "government speech," had merely been deemed an implicit endorsement of the donor's message.


As framed and argued by the parties, this case presents a question under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. I agree with the Court's analysis of that question and join its opinion in full. But it is also obvious that from the start, the case has been litigated in the shadow of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause: the city wary of associating itself too closely with the Ten Commandments monument displayed in the park, lest that be deemed a breach in the so-called "wall of separation between church and State," Reynolds v. United States (1879). . . .

The city ought not fear that today's victory has propelled it from the Free Speech Clause frying pan into the Establishment Clause fire. Contrary to respondent's intimations, there are very good reasons to be confident that the park displays do not violate any part of the First Amendment.

In Van Orden v. Perry (2005), this Court upheld against Establishment Clause challenge a virtually identical Ten Commandments monument, donated by the very same organization (the Fraternal Order of Eagles), which was displayed on the grounds surrounding the Texas State Capitol. . . .

The city can safely exhale. Its residents and visitors can now return to enjoying Pioneer Park's wishing well, its historic granary--and, yes, even its Ten Commandments monument--without fear that they are complicit in an establishment of religion.


I agree with the Court and join its opinion. I do so, however, on the understanding that the "government speech" doctrine is a rule of thumb, not a rigid category. Were the City to discriminate in the selection of permanent monuments on grounds unrelated to the display's theme, say solely on political grounds, its action might well violate the First Amendment.


I agree with the Court that the Ten Commandments monument is government speech, that is, an expression of a government's position on the moral and religious issues raised by the subject of the monument. . . . I also agree with the Court that the city need not satisfy the particular formality urged by Summum as a condition of recognizing that the expression here falls within the public category. I have qualms, however, about accepting the position that public monuments are government speech categorically.

Because the government speech doctrine, as Justice Stevens notes, is "recently minted," it would do well for us to go slow in setting its bounds, which will affect existing doctrine in ways not yet explored. Even though, for example, Establishment Clause issues have been neither raised nor briefed before us, there is no doubt that this case and its government speech claim has been litigated by the parties with one eye on the Establishment Clause (Scalia, J., concurring). The interaction between the "government speech doctrine" and Establishment Clause principles has not, however, begun to be worked out. . . .

To avoid relying on a per se rule to say when speech is governmental, the best approach that occurs to me is to ask whether a reasonable and fully informed observer would understand the expression to be government speech, as distinct from private speech the government chooses to oblige by allowing the monument to be placed on public land. This reasonable observer test for governmental character is of a piece with the one for spotting forbidden governmental endorsement of religion in the Establishment Clause cases. The adoption of it would thus serve coherence within Establishment Clause law, and it would make sense of our common understanding that some monuments on public land display religious symbolism that clearly does not express a government's chosen views. Application of this observer test provides the reason I find the monument here to be government expression.