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May 2, 1977



Burger, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens; Rehnquist took no part in the consideration or decision fo the case.

Author: Marshall

[ 431 U.S. Page 86]

 MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the First Amendment permits a municipality to prohibit the posting of "For Sale" or "Sold" signs when the municipality acts to stem what it perceives as the flight of white homeowners from a racially integrated community.

Petitioner Linmark Associates, a New Jersey corporation, owned a piece of realty in the township of Willingboro, N.J. Petitioner decided to sell its property, and on March 26, 1974, listed it with petitioner Mellman, a real estate agent. To attract interest in the property, petitioners desired to place a "For Sale" sign on the lawn. Willingboro, however, narrowly limits the types of signs that can be erected on land in the township. Although prior to March 1974 "For Sale" and "Sold" signs were permitted subject to certain restrictions not at issue here, on March 18, 1974, the Township Council enacted Ordinance 5-1974, repealing the statutory authorization for such signs on all but model homes. Petitioners brought this action against both the township and the building inspector charged with enforcing the ban on "For Sale" signs, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.*fn1 The District

[ 431 U.S. Page 87]

     Court granted a declaration of unconstitutionality, but a divided Court of Appeals reversed, 535 F.2d 786 (CA3 1976). We granted certiorari, 429 U.S. 938 (1976) and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


The township of Willingboro is a residential community located in southern New Jersey near Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base, and offices of several national corporations. The township was developed as a middle-income community by Levitt & Sons, beginning in the late 1950's. It is served by over 80 real estate agents.

During the 1960's Willingboro underwent rapid growth. The white population increased by almost 350%, and the nonwhite population rose from 60 to over 5,000, or from .005% of the population to 11.7%. As of the 1970 census, almost 44,000 people resided in Willingboro. In the 1970's, however, the population growth slowed; from 1970 to 1973, the latest year for which figures were available at the time of trial, Willingboro's population rose by only 3%. More significantly, the white population actually declined by almost 2,000 in this interval, a drop of over 5%, while the nonwhite population grew by more than 3,000, an increase of approximately 60%. By 1973, nonwhites constituted 18.2% of the township's population.

At the trial in this case respondents presented testimony from two real estate agents, two members of the Township Council, and three members of the Human Relations Commission, all of whom agreed that a major cause in the decline in

[ 431 U.S. Page 88]

     the white population was "panic selling" - that is, selling by whites who feared that the township was becoming all black, and that property values would decline. One real estate agent estimated that the reason 80% of the sellers gave for their decision to sell was that "the whole town was for sale, and they didn't want to be caught in any bind." App. in No. 75-1448 (CA3), pp. 219a-220a. Respondents' witnesses also testified that in their view "For Sale" and "Sold" signs were a major catalyst of these fears.

William Kearns, the Mayor of Willingboro during the year preceding enactment of the ordinance and a member of the Council when the ordinance was enacted, testified concerning the events leading up to its passage. Id., at 183a-186a. According to Kearns, beginning at least in 1973 the community became concerned about the changing population. At a town meeting in February 1973, called to discuss "Willingboro, to sell or not to sell," a member of the community suggested that real estate signs be banned. The suggestion received the overwhelming support of those attending the meeting. Kearns brought the proposal to the Township Council, which requested the Township Solicitor to study it. The Council also contacted National Neighbors, a nationwide organization promoting integrated housing, and obtained the names of other communities that had prohibited "For Sale" signs. After obtaining a favorable report from Shaker Heights, Ohio, on its ordinance, and after receiving an endorsement of the proposed ban from the Willingboro Human Relations Commission, the Council began drafting legislation.

Rather than following its usual procedure of conducting a public hearing only after the proposed law had received preliminary Council approval, the Council scheduled two public meetings on Ordinance 5-1974. The first took place in February 1974, before the initial Council vote, and the second in March 1974, after the vote. At the conclusion of the second hearing, the ordinance was approved unanimously.

[ 431 U.S. Page 89]

     The transcripts of the Council hearings were introduced into evidence at trial. They reveal that at the hearings the Council received important information bearing on the need for and likely impact of the ordinance. With respect to the justification for the ordinance, the Council was told (a) that a study of Willingboro home sales in 1973 revealed that the turnover rate was roughly 11%, App. in No. 75-1448 (CA3), p. 89a;*fn2 (b) that in February 1974 - a typical month - 230 "For Sale" signs were posted among the 11,000 houses in the community, id., at 94a, 37a;*fn3 and (c) that the Willingboro Tax Assessor had reported that "by and large the increased value of Willingboro properties was way ahead of... comparable communities." Id., at 106a. With respect to the projected effect of the ordinance, several real estate agents reported that 30%-35% of their purchaser-clients came to them because they had seen one of the agent's "For Sale" ...

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