The City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania enacted a “buffer zone” ordinance that disallows an individual to “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate in a zone extending 20 feet from any portion of an entrance to, exit from, or driveway of a health care facility.”  A group of plaintiffs, protesters and sidewalk counselors near abortion clinics, challenged the law on First Amendment grounds.  Two weeks ago, a federal district court in Pennsylvania granted the city’s motion to dismiss several of the plaintiffs’ claims and denied a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs.

Citing the 2014 Supreme Court case of McCullen v. Coakley, the court found that the city’s 20-foot buffer zone restriction was content neutral and therefore subject to intermediate scrutiny review.  The court determined, however, that the city should be required to present evidence that the regulation in question was narrowly tailored to a significant governmental interest as required by the First Amendment.  Accordingly, the court allowed the plaintiffs’ narrow tailoring claim to proceed.  The court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims regarding vagueness, prior restraint, selective enforcement, and Free Exercise Clause claims.  With respect to the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction, the court found that the plaintiffs did not show how they might succeed on the merits of the case:

Although Defendants have not made a clear showing, at the preliminary injunction stage, it is Plaintiffs who have the burden of clearly establishing a probability of success on the merits. Based on the record before the court, Plaintiffs have failed to carry that burden.

We have reported on several buffer zone cases in recent months, as more plaintiffs challenge these common methods of protecting patients and employees at reproductive health care clinics.  Given the higher evidentiary burdens placed on local governments following McCullen, it remains to be seen how many of these buffer zone laws will survive judicial scrutiny.

Reilly v. City of Harrisburg, Slip Op., No. 1:16-CV-0510, 2016 WL 4539207 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2016).

Last month, a federal magistrate judge in New York recommended invalidating yet another sign code as content based in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  In February 2015, a resident of the Village of Perry, New York, Carolyn Grieve, posted signs complaining about the village’s spending policies.  Grieve received a notice of violation from the village.  In April 2015, Grieve filed suit against the village, alleging that the sign code was content based and an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, and that the village had engaged in selective enforcement of the code against her.  Because the village code allowed the display of several types of commercial signs without a permit while requiring permits for the display of noncommercial signs, the magistrate judge found the sign code to be content based.  As the village offered no rationale to support its code provisions, the magistrate found that the village failed strict scrutiny review, and recommended summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

Grieve v. Vill. of Perry, Slip Op., No. 15-CV-00365-RJA-JJM, 2016 WL 4491713 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2016).

The court ruled that signs like the one shown above are forced speech in contradiction of First Amendment rights of utility companies. Source: Newsday.

In a decision that could have far-reaching consequences, earlier this year, a federal court in New York found a town law requiring the placement of warning signs on utility posts violated the First Amendment as a content based restriction on noncommercial speech.

In 2014, the Town of North Hempstead, New York adopted a local law requiring warning signs on utility posts in the town.  The law came about following local opposition to the erection of a new overheard electricity transmission line through the town.  As part of the project, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and PSEG Long Island LLC (PSEG) placed new utility poles Continue Reading Court:  Utility Pole Warning Signs are Forced Speech in Violation of First Amendment

The Ron Paul sign in question in the Texas Highway Beautification Act case. Source: Austin Chronicle.

The Texas Highway Beautification Act permits “political” signs to be displayed no more than 90 days before an election and 10 days after an election.  Because this provision regulates speech based on its content, two weeks ago, the Texas Court of Appeals found the entire Highway Beautification Act violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The court’s decision in Auspro Enterprises, LP v. Texas Department of Transportation is a major blow to state and local efforts to control billboard advertising.

The case began in 2011 when a head shop owner in Bee Cave, Texas, Auspro Enterprises, displayed a sign advocating the election of Ron Paul for President outside of the time limits prescribed by the Highway Beautification Act.   The state Department of Transportation brought an enforcement action against the landowner Continue Reading Texas Court Deals Setback to Billboard Restrictions

This post is authored as a joint post of the RLUIPA Defense ( and Rocky Mountain Sign Law ( blogs.  Evan Seeman of Robinson & Cole and Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti contributed to this post.

Late last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that directional signs to a church, which contained images of a cross and bible, did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The borough of Shickshinny, Pennsylvania installed a sign in a borough right-of-way that was designed and produced by a third party and which read “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You!”  The signs contained images of a cross and bible, and a directional arrow pointing motorists to the church.  The sign was approved by the borough council.  The plaintiff in the case, Francene Tearpock-Martini, is a former borough council member who voted against the sign.  The sign is within sight of her house.

In 2013, the district court granted the borough’s motion to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds.  In 2014, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s Equal Protection and Free Speech claims, but reversed on the plaintiff’s Establishment Clause claim.

On summary judgment, the district court held that the sign constituted a “religious display” because it contains religious symbols.  The court analyzed the Establishment Clause claim under what is known as the “endorsement” of religion test, which asks “whether a reasonable observer of the sign who is familiar with the history and context of the display would perceive it as an endorsement of religion.”  The court found that the sign did not constitute an endorsement of religion by the borough because it was merely a sign pointing in the direction of a church and a reasonable observer would perceive it as “a sign to a church and nothing more.”  The court rejected the claim that government employees’ assistance in placing the sign, as well as the fact that the borough may have used its own cement for the sign, was an illegal endorsement of religion.

Out of an “abundance of caution,” the court also reviewed the Establishment Clause claim under a separate test established by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman.  The Lemon test looks to whether: (a) the government practice has a secular purpose; (b) the principal effect of the government’s action either advances or inhibits religion; and (c) the government created an excessive entanglement of government with religion.  Here, the court found that the church sign passed this test as well – there was a secular purpose (providing direction to people); the principal effect did not inhibit but only very slightly advanced religion by providing directions to the church; and the government was not entangled with religion, as it only approved the sign and helped install it.

Interestingly, the decision in Tearpock-Martini did not address the government speech doctrine, which would have been highly appropriate in this case given the factual similarities to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum.  In that case, the Supreme Court held that a Ten Commandments monument in a public park constituted government speech and was therefore not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

Tearpock-Martini v. Shickshinny Borough, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2016 WL 3959034 (M.D. Pa. Jul. 22, 2016).

Our colleagues and friends Dan Mandelker, John Baker, and Rick Crawford have recently co-authored a new book, the fourth edition of Street Graphics and the Law, published by the American Planning Association.  The new edition of Street Graphics is an update to one of the most important resources for local governments on the science, planning, and law of sign regulation.  Professor Mandelker authored a blog post about some of the highlights of the new book here, and the new book can be found here.

Earlier this month, the 11th Circuit considered the constitutionality of an ordinance enacted in Sandy Springs, Georgia, which criminalizes the distribution of sexual devices.  Although not a First Amendment case, we’re including a post on the case because the decision relates to a First Amendment-protected land use—adult businesses—and introduces an alternative constitutional theory for challenging regulation of adult businesses.

Appellants in the case claimed that the Sandy Springs ordinance violated their substantive due process right to privacy.  Appellants included an adult bookstore that sells sexually explicit materials and items, including sexual devices, and a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis who uses sexual devices with her husband to facilitate intimacy.  Although expressing sympathy with appellants’ claims, the court held that it could not break from a 2004 11th Circuit decision that held that privacy-based rights, including the right to buy, sell and use sexual devices, were not fundamental rights under the Constitution, and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case.

Appellants encouraged the court to reconsider its analysis of privacy-based rights based on the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 570 U.S. 12 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2071, 576 U.S. ___ (2015).  Appellants contended that these decisions clarified the existence of a fundamental right to engage in acts of private, consensual sexual intimacy.  However, even though the court characterized its 2004 decision as “wrong,” the court found it could not overrule its prior holding absent the Supreme Court’s express recognition of privacy as a fundamental right.

Although circuit precedent prevented the 11th Circuit from recognizing adult businesses as having protection under the due process clause, due process protection of privacy exists in other circuits and may not be far off in the 11th Circuit (the court actually encouraged the appellants to have their decision reviewed en banc).  If privacy rights are afforded fundamental rights status under the Due Process Clause, land use and zoning restrictions related to adult businesses may be challenged based on more than First Amendment claims.  Whereas local governments may defeat First Amendment challenges using the “secondary effects doctrine,” which permits some burden on speech when the regulation targets the negative effects of speech and not the speech itself, claims that land use and zoning restrictions violate the Due Process Clause will require a heightened standard of review that could prove difficult for some local governments to withstand.

Flanigan’s Enterprises, Inc. v. City of Sandy Springs, No. 14-15499, 2016 WL 4088731 (11th Cir., Aug. 2, 2016).

Last Friday, a federal district court in Florida found that the City of Tampa’s restriction on requests for donation or payment—aimed at preventing panhandling and solicitation on city streets—violated the First Amendment.  The court’s decision follows on several other decisions around the country that have invalidated bans on solicitation of donations on the grounds that such bans are not content neutral. Continue Reading Tampa Panhandling Ban Found Unconstitutional

A member of the street ministry of the Seminole Baptist Church, the plaintiff in the case. Source: Seminole Baptist Church
A member of the street ministry of the Seminole Baptist Church, the plaintiff in the case. Source: Seminole Baptist Church

The plaintiff in Williamson v. City of Foley was a Baptist pastor whose congregation periodically engaged in evangelistic street ministry by preaching and witnessing orally and with signs on public sidewalks at the intersection of two major highways. Continue Reading Evidence of Less-Restrictive Alternatives Do Not (Necessarily) Violate the Narrow Tailoring Requirement

Without including any facts or analysis in its opinion, the Eleventh Circuit vacated and remanded a March 31, 2015, decision by the District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  According to the Eleventh Circuit, the district court must determine whether, under the June 18, 2015, Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision, the Town of Gulf Stream’s sign code constitutes either a facially content-based regulation, or a facially content-neutral regulation that “cannot be justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, or that were adopted by the government because of disagreement with the message the speech conveys,” and therefore triggers strict scrutiny review.

O’Boyle v. Town of Gulf Stream, No. 15-13964, 2016 WL 4056394 (11th Cir. July 26, 2016)