Donald Burns’s current home in Palm Beach. Source: curbed.com.

Earlier this year, after a telecom millionaire with a checkered past challenged the Town of Palm Beach, Florida’s architectural review ordinance on First Amendment grounds, a federal magistrate judge in Florida issued a report and recommendation finding that the house proposed by the applicant was not entitled to First Amendment protection.  The court then entered summary judgment in favor of the town.

Donald Burns sought to construct a new, modern home in a neighborhood otherwise characterized by more traditional architecture.  He filed an application in 2014 to demolish his existing home and construct the new house.  His self-declared intent was to distinguish himself from his neighbors and to communicate modernist design elements to the community.  Neighbors opposed the project.  After reviewing several iterations of the proposed design, the town’s Architectural Commission denied Burns’s application in 2016.  Burns then filed suit, alleging violations of the First Amendment as well as claims under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court first iterated that it was the plaintiff’s burden to establish that the activity in question was expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.  The court considered the Eleventh Circuit’s two-part test for determining whether conduct receives First Amendment protection, which requires analyzing whether the actor intends to communicate a message and whether there is a “great likelihood” that a reasonable viewer would understand the conduct is communicative.  The court also considered case law on the distinction between commercial merchandise and expressive products.  The court noted that only two prior cases had addressed questions of whether architecture constituted protected speech:  a 2004 federal district court case in Nevada held that residential architecture was not protected, while a 1992 Washington case found that religious architecture was sufficiently expressive so as to receive First Amendment protection.

Applying the test typically applied to determine whether merchandise is expressive, the court found that Burns’s proposed home was not expressive conduct deserving of First Amendment protection.  The house, in the court’s eyes, had a predominantly non-expressive purpose:  it was intended for residence by an individual or family.  Additionally, the court found that it was unlikely that a reasonable person would view the house as expressive conduct.  Accordingly, the court declined to review the architectural review ordinance under the First Amendment.

The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation in late September.  The case is now on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.  This case is of particular interest to First Amendment observers, as cases involving questions of whether architecture is protected under the First Amendment are few and far between.

Burns v. Town of Palm Beach, No. 17-CV-81152, 2018 WL 4868710 (S.D. Fla. Jul. 13, 2018).

One of Morris’s murals in New Orleans. Source: The Advocate.

In October, a federal district court in Louisiana denied the City of New Orleans’s motion to dismiss a claim filed by an individual challenging the city’s permit requirement for murals.

In late 2017, Neal Morris, an owner of residential and commercial properties in New Orleans, sought information from the city about the permit process and approval criteria for placing murals on his properties.  When he did not receive the requested information, Morris commissioned an artist to paint a mural on one of his properties.  The mural contained the infamous vulgar quote by President Donald Trump on the “Access Hollywood” tape, but replaced certain of the inflammatory words with images.  Morris was subsequently cited with a violation of the city’s historic district regulations.

In response, Morris filed suit against the city, alleging that the permitting scheme violated his First Amendment rights.  Specifically, he claimed that the permit scheme was an unconstitutional prior restraint and that it was a content based regulation.  He also claimed due process and equal protection violations.  The city subsequently amended its regulations, and the court denied the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction as moot.  When the city then moved to dismiss the case, the plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion.

The court first found that the plaintiff had standing to challenge the mural ordinance.  Since the city was attempting to interfere with Morris’s placement of murals, the court found that he had standing.  The court moved on to analyze whether the mural ordinance is content neutral or an unconstitutional prior restraint.  The mural ordinance requires murals to be submitted to the city for design review, in which the city considers the mural’s compatibility with surrounding properties and neighborhoods and determines whether the mural furthers public welfare.  Because these analyses require analysis of the mural’s content, the court found that the regulation was content based.  Based on that finding, the court relied upon Thomas v. Chicago Park District to determine that the law was also an unconstitutional prior restraint, because it allowed unbridled administrative discretion in the issuance or denial of mural permits.

The court went on to find that Morris also pled sufficient facts to state an unconstitutional vagueness claim under the Due Process Clause, but dismissed the plaintiff’s “class of one” claim under the Equal Protection Clause.

Morris v. City of New Orleans, No. 18-2624, 2018 WL 5084890 (E.D. La. Oct. 18, 2018).

AFDI sought to run an advertisement that was nearly identical to a U.S. State Department advertisement. Source: American Freedom Law Center.

In a case that has been percolating for more than five years and which we reported on last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court order granting summary judgment in favor of King County, Washington, finding that the county’s bus advertising policy and rejection of a proposed advertisement violated the First Amendment.  The Ninth Circuit had previously affirmed the district court’s order denying a preliminary injunction to the plaintiff, American Freedom Defense Initiative, a nonprofit concerned with the “Islamization of America.”  The advertisements that AFDI desired to run showed the faces of individuals on the nation’s “most wanted” list of jihadists.

For purposes of brevity, the facts and prior disposition of the case can be found in our earlier post.

In its analysis, the Ninth Circuit confirmed that advertising space on King County’s public buses constitutes a nonpublic forum, thus requiring the Seattle bus system’s advertising policy to be reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum, and viewpoint neutral.  The Ninth Circuit clarified that reasonableness is measured by reviewing the forum’s purpose, whether the standards for rejecting an advertisement are definite and objective, and by an independent review of the record.

The court found that the transit operator’s policies prohibiting false or misleading advertising were reasonable.  However, it disagreed that the policy prohibiting demeaning or disparaging advertising was viewpoint neutral.  Citing to the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Matal v. Tam, which held a similar prohibition to be viewpoint based, the court found offensive speech is, by its nature, expressive of a particular viewpoint and thus a prohibition on such speech is not viewpoint neutral.  And while the court found that the transit operator’s policy prohibiting advertising that would be disruptive to its transit service was viewpoint neutral and facially reasonable, it found the transit operator’s rejection of AFDI’s advertising to be unreasonable.  Namely, the court pointed to a U.S. State Department advertisement run by the transit operator that showed faces of global terrorists that was nearly identical to the advertisement rejected by the operator.  Because the bus system could not demonstrate harm to its operations from the State Department advertisement, the court found that the rejection of AFDI’s advertising was unreasonable.

Am. Freedom Defense Initiative v. King Cnty., 904 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2018).

An adult business in Louisiana. Source: Facebook.

Last month, the federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit invalidated a Louisiana statute prohibiting nude erotic dancing by 18 to 21-year-old women, finding that the law was too vague and thus violated the First Amendment.  The law was passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2016, and applied to locations that serve alcoholic beverages in connection with nude dancing.  Erotic dancers were previously required to be at least 18 years of age, and state law—both before and after the 2016 law—did not permit total nudity.

The court addressed the law as a content neutral regulation of expressive conduct, in line with Fifth Circuit precedent requiring adult business regulations to be analyzed under intermediate scrutiny.  The court analyzed the law under the four-part standard for determining the constitutionality of regulations of expressive conduct under United States v. O’Brien.  The court reversed the district court’s conclusion that the law was not narrowly tailored, on the grounds that Louisiana state courts had limited the act’s application beyond its plainly legitimate sweep.  Thus, the law was tailored to the state’s interest in reducing negative secondary effects associated with adult entertainment establishments.  The court went on, however, to find that the law was unconstitutionally vague.  Specifically, the court found that the law in question, which prohibited exposure “to view” of the dancers’ breasts and buttocks, did not clearly prohibit specific conduct.  On these grounds, the court invalidated the statute.

While this case does not deal with local regulations (which are generally the subject of our blog), it provides further direction to local governments addressing adult entertainment businesses.  Specifically, local governments need to clearly identify the type of conduct that is permissible in adult entertainment establishments, and should not rely on state laws that might not be sufficiently specific in that regard.

Doe I v. Landry, 905 F.3d 290 (5th Cir. 2018).

Two men were arrested for disorderly conduct in an anti-abortion demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In addition to bringing a Fourth Amendment claim against the Little Rock Police Department, the men challenged the Arkansas disorderly conduct statute and the city’s permit requirement as violations of their free speech rights under the First Amendment.  A federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed on appeal earlier this month.

Arkansas’s criminal code contains several actions that constitute disorderly conduct, including:  fighting; in violent, threatening, or tumultuous behavior; unreasonable or excessive noise; the use of “abusive or obscene language, or mak[ing] an obscene gesture, in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response; disruption or disturbance of meetings or gatherings; obstructing traffic; and other actions.  The plaintiffs argued that the statute was vague and overbroad.  The appeals court found that the statute was not vague, primarily because it contained a mens rea requirement—that is, that the violator have a particular intent to engage in disorderly conduct.  The court used similar logic in upholding the statute against the plaintiffs’ overbreadth claim, finding that the statute was content neutral and that its objective mens rea requirement precluded an overbreadth challenge. Continue Reading Arkansas Abortion Protesters Lose Appeal in Vagueness, Overbreadth, and Prior Restraint Case

Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The flagpoles can be seen on the right in the photo. Source: Boston Globe.

The City of Boston has three flagpoles in the plaza in front of its city hall.  Typically, the city displays an American flag and POW/MIA flag on one pole and the flag of Massachusetts on the second pole.  The third pole is used for the City of Boston flag, or alternatively, the flag of a third party.  The third pole has been used for flags of foreign nations, civic organizations, the LGBT rainbow flag, and others.  Parties can submit applications to fly their flag on the third pole, and the city has guidelines that prohibits flags that involve illegal or dangerous activities or conflict with scheduled events.  The city reviews applications to determine whether a flag is consistent with the city’s message, policies, and practices, but does not have any guidelines as to the content of the flags.  When an applicant was denied the opportunity to place a “Christian flag” on the City Hall on the grounds that the city refrains from flying religious flags on the Plaza, he filed suit.

Late last month, on the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, a federal district court found for the city.  The court determined that the display of flags in front of City Hall constituted government speech.  Applying the factors established by the Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the court found that flags are a longstanding form of government speech, the flags in front of City Hall are likely understood to be government speech, and the city has effective control over the flags in front of City Hall.  Finding that the flags constitute government speech, that effectively ended the First Amendment inquiry. Continue Reading Federal Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Boston Flag Case

A photo of the cross in Bayview Park. Source: Fox News.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a 75-year old cross displayed in Pensacola, Florida’s Bayview Park was a violation of certain individuals’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion.  But the court’s decision was based entirely on its “prior panel precedent” rule—meaning that the court was bound by a 35-year old decision on nearly identical facts—and the panel openly questioned the correctness of its decision.

Three individuals, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought the case in federal district court in Florida.  They alleged that they felt offended by the presence of the cross in the park.  Pensacola moved to dismiss on standing grounds, arguing that the plaintiffs’ injuries were sufficient ethereal so as not to pass muster under current-day standing doctrine.  The parties also filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question of whether the cross violated the Establishment Clause. Continue Reading Appeals Court Finds That Concrete Cross Violates Establishment Clause, But Is Reversal In Sight?

An aerial view of the Virginia Run Cove development. Source: Google.

Last month, a federal district court in Tennessee denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a man who wished to picket a Planned Parenthood location in a business park in Memphis.  The court determined that the private street on which the plaintiff, John Brindley, intended to picket was not a public roadway and therefore was not a traditional public forum requiring content neutral speech regulations.

Planned Parenthood’s offices are located on Virginia Run Cove, a two-lane street that serves multiple businesses located within the park.  The park is zoned as a planned unit development, and the street serves the businesses located within the park.  Brindley sought to protest Planned Parenthood on Virginia Run Cove, but was asked to move by a police officer on the premise that Virginia Run Cove is a private street.  Brindley subsequently moved to a nearby public street, but was dissatisfied that his protest location was nearly 300 feet from his target audience, Planned Parenthood.  Brindley subsequently filed his complaint in federal district court.

In conducting a forum analysis to determine whether Virginia Run Cove was a public forum for First Amendment purposes, the court noted that some public fora are privately-owned.  These areas include public sidewalks that run across private property, sidewalks on private university campuses, and even the streets of corporate-owned communities.  However, the court observed, private areas are not converted into public fora where the owner of the property allows a more limited use of the property. Continue Reading In Tennessee Planned Parenthood Case, Court Finds Private Street is Not a Public Forum

The Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in Denver. Source: CGL Companies.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve reported on a case involving pamphleteering activities on the plaza that lies outside of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse here in our home city of Denver, Colorado.  Things have gotten interesting again, as the Tenth Circuit last month reversed a decision of the federal district court finding the City and County of Denver in contempt following its decision to arrest an individual for distributing literature on the plaza.

We’ll first bring our readers back up to speed.  This case involved the question of whether a group could lawfully distribute literature about jury nullification on the plaza.  The Second Judicial District, a state court, prohibited demonstrations and literature distribution on the plaza.  The plaza area is owned by Denver, and the state court is a tenant on the property.  Denver Police arrested a member of the pamphleteering group, which resulted in a First Amendment claim against the city and the state court.  Denver stipulated that the plaza was a public forum, and further stipulated that it would not enforce the prohibitions on literature distribution, but the Second Judicial District disagreed with Denver’s position.  The federal court then entered a preliminary injunction against the Second Judicial District, and dismissed Denver from the case.  A prior Tenth Circuit order upheld the preliminary injunction.  On a motion for permanent injunction, the court agreed with the Second Judicial District and found that the plaza was not a traditional public forum. Continue Reading In Another Chapter of Denver Courthouse Plaza Battle, Tenth Circuit Reverses Contempt Order

A recent discovery dispute over Madison, Wisconsin’s revised sign codes recently provided a reminder regarding the evidence that is and isn’t relevant in a Free Speech challenge.  And let’s not bury the lede: a legislator’s private motivations for amending the sign code, the court concluded, don’t matter.

A only-in-Wisconsin billboard. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency, public domain

Adams Outdoor Advertising, a billboard operator, brought a facial and as-applied First Amendment challenge to Madison’s sign code after the city’s 2017 overhaul severely restricted off-site advertising.  The challenge itself is ongoing and Adams Outdoor contends that Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s test for content-based regulations—and not Central Hudson’s more permissive test for commercial speech regulations—should invalidate Madison’s new approach.

In the hopes of bolstering that contention, Adams Outdoor submitted discovery requests for information about the purpose of the 2017 amendment and, in particular, legislators’ personal motivations for adopting it.  The city refused to provide the information, invoking legislative privilege, and the dispute eventually reached the court. Continue Reading No Discovery on Legislators’ Personal Motivations for Sign Code Overhaul, says District Judge