Boos v. Barry

485 U.S. 312 (1988)

Quick Summary

Boos, Brooker, and Waller (plaintiffs) contested a D.C. law restricting their ability to display signs near foreign embassies that criticized those nations’ governments. They argued this violated their First Amendment rights. Mayor Barry (defendant) defended the law’s necessity for international diplomacy.

The case escalated through lower courts to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that while diplomatic respect is important, it does not justify broad restrictions on free speech.

The Court struck down the display clause for being content-based and not narrowly tailored but upheld the congregation clause’s constitutionality.

Facts of the Case

Boos, Brooker, and Waller (plaintiffs) wished to express their disapproval of the Soviet Union and Nicaragua by displaying signs near the respective embassies in Washington, D.C. Their intended messages included calls to ‘RELEASE SAKHAROV’ and ‘STOP THE KILLING,’ highlighting human rights concerns.

However, a District of Columbia law prohibited such displays within five hundred feet of an embassy if they tended to bring the embassy’s government into ‘public odium’ or ‘public disrepute.’ Asserting their First Amendment rights, the plaintiffs challenged this law, arguing that it unjustly restricted their freedom of speech.

Mayor Barry and other D.C. officials (defendants) defended the law, which was originally enacted to uphold international diplomatic decorum and prevent any disturbance to the peace of foreign missions. The plaintiffs argued that the law was an unconstitutional restriction on their freedom of speech, as it was content-based and did not serve a compelling government interest in a narrowly tailored way.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The plaintiffs brought suit in district court against Mayor Barry and other officials, challenging the D.C. law as unconstitutional.
  2. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, upholding the law.
  3. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.
  4. The plaintiffs appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to review the case.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the District of Columbia law prohibiting signage critical of foreign governments near embassies violated the First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly.

Rule of Law

In public fora such as streets and sidewalks, any content-based restriction on speech must be justified by a compelling government interest and must be narrowly tailored to serve that interest.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court analyzed the statute’s restrictions on political speech in public spaces, emphasizing that such areas are given special protection under the First Amendment. The Court determined that the law in question was content-based since it specifically targeted signage critical of foreign governments.

The majority opinion rejected the argument that avoiding offense to foreign dignitaries was a secondary effect of speech; instead, it was a direct impact on content, making the regulation content-based and subject to exacting scrutiny. While recognizing that international law obliges respect for diplomatic personnel, the Court found that these interests could not override First Amendment rights without a narrowly tailored statute.

Comparing the D.C. statute with a less restrictive federal law, the Court concluded that protecting diplomatic dignity could be achieved without such broad prohibitions on speech. The Court also noted recent congressional actions suggesting that ยง 22-1115 was no longer considered necessary to fulfill international obligations.


The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision regarding the display clause, deeming it unconstitutional as it was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. However, the Court affirmed the constitutionality of the congregation clause, which prohibited congregating within 500 feet of an embassy when ordered to disperse by police.

Key Takeaways

  1. The First Amendment provides robust protection for political speech, especially in traditional public fora like streets and sidewalks.
  2. A content-based restriction on speech must meet strict scrutiny โ€” it must serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that end.
  3. International obligations must be balanced with constitutional protections; no international agreement can contravene the First Amendment.
  4. The existence of less restrictive alternatives can undermine the justification for more restrictive laws limiting free speech.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What considerations should be taken into account when imposing content-based restrictions on free speech?

Such restrictions must meet the strict scrutiny standard: they have to serve a compelling government interest and be narrowly tailored to address that interest without restricting more speech than necessary.

  • For example: A city’s ordinance that prohibits all outdoor advertising could be considered too broad if its aim is to reduce driver distraction, as it restricts both commercial and non-commercial speech. A more narrowly tailored approach would target only those signs that pose the highest risk, like electronic billboards with changing messages close to busy intersections.

How does international law interact with domestic rights such as the freedom of speech?

While international law and diplomatic relations are important, they do not supersede constitutional freedoms. Restrictions on rights must still comply with the constitution.

  • For example: If a treaty requires silence outside foreign consulates, a domestic law enforcing this could infringe on First Amendment rights unless it can pass strict scrutiny.

In what ways can legislation affecting freedom of assembly be constitutionally permissible?

Legislation must avoid targeting specific viewpoints or groups and should be content-neutral. It should also be narrowly focused on significant governmental interests, like public safety, and provide ample alternative channels for communication.

  • For example: A city requires permits for demonstrations over a certain size to ensure public safety but cannot deny a permit based on the demonstration’s purpose or content.


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