Recent litigation against the city of Fort Worth has once again confirmed that localities should steer clear of content-based sign codes and free-wheeling approval processes.  Dallas’s neighbor learned that lesson after a federal district court struck down portions of its regulations, concluding they were both content-based and a prior restraint, and also unable to survive strict scrutiny.

The case arose from plaintiff Brookes Baker’s efforts to place crosses in the city right-of-way alongside an abortion clinic.
Continue Reading Federal District Court Strikes Down Fort Worth’s Prohibition and Exemption Scheme for Materials in the Right-of-Way

As a company that sells advertising space on benches in public areas, Bench Billboard Company has a long and storied litigation history against municipalities in Ohio and Kentucky.  In this most recent iteration, the BBC challenged the constitutionality of Colerain Township’s (a Cincinnati suburb) restriction on signage in its right of way after the Township

Simi Valley, California, like many cities, bans mobile advertising displays on public streets.  It also, however, exempts certain authorized vehicles from the general ban.  The district court considered that scheme a permissible content-neutral regulation of speech and dismissed plaintiff Bruce Boyer’s complaint challenging its constitutionality.

A mobile billboard roaming the streets. Source: Wikimedia Commons, SammySosaa

Last month, the Ninth Circuit reversed in a published opinion reasoning that Simi Valley’s authorized vehicle exemption amounted to a speaker-based—and in turn, content-based—regulation.  Following that conclusion, it returned the case to the district court for further proceedings to determine whether
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Holds California City’s Mobile Advertising Ban Content-Based, Subject to Strict Scrutiny

In a midnight per curiam opinion that generated several concurring and dissenting opinions, the Supreme Court recently enjoined the state of New York from enforcing certain COVID-19 restrictions against religious institutions.  Although the injunction is limited to the pendency of the underlying appeal in the Second Circuit, it represents the Court’s most thorough treatment of pandemic-related restrictions on religious exercise to date.  It also marks an about-face from Chief Justice Roberts’  solo concurrence to the Court’s denial of a similar application for injunctive relief earlier this year.  In May, the Chief Justice deferred to the coordinate branches in dealing with the pandemic.  Now, however, the full Court has grown more skeptical of pandemic restrictions affecting religious exercise, and lower courts will probably follow suit.

The facts are as follows:  New York has adopted a tiered system of pandemic restrictions.  The state applies those restrictions to a number of geographic districts based on the severity of the pandemic in those districts.  Restrictions for a “red zone” are more severe than those for a “yellow zone” and so on.  New York’s regulations also distinguish between “essential” and non-essential business, and further identify religious institutions among the various uses regulated.  Religious institutions are not an “essential” use, though they receive preferential treatment relative to other large, indoor gatherings.  In “red zones” no more than ten people may attend each religious service.  In “orange zones,” the regulations cap attendance at twenty-five, irrespective of building capacity.  “Essential” businesses, which include acupuncture clinics and liquor stores, face no such capacity restrictions.

The per curiam opinion (which legal writing analysts believe was authored by
Continue Reading Supreme Court Sides with Religious Institutions Against New York Restrictions on Worship Services

In a victory for plaintiff B&G Opa Holdings’s “Klub 24,” a federal district court recently struck down an ordinance used to shutter a strip club that briefly opened in a suburb north of Miami.  Three months after an Opa-locka, Florida licensing clerk stamped “approve” on B&G’s application for a “playhouse,” the city returned to shut down the operation.  Opa-locka explained that it had failed to run that use through its adult-entertainment special use permitting scheme and that Klub 24 was therefore operating without a license.

Klub 24’s Chained Doors Following City Shut-Down. Source: Miami Times

Litigation followed.  Adopting the magistrate’s recommendation, the district court granted summary judgment on B&G’s claims that the city’s ordinance unconstitutionally prohibited all adult-entertainment uses and also gave the city too much discretion to prohibit such uses.

In what appears to have been some administrative bungling—and perhaps some misdirection from B&G—the city first allowed Klub 24 as an “other club” in January 2018.  When it became clear that Klub 24 was in fact a
Continue Reading Florida City’s Special Use Restriction on Strip Clubs Held Unconstitutional

In a case involving violations of nearly every First Amendment protection for speech in public places, a federal court recently enjoined enforcement of new Chicago restrictions on speech in the city’s famed Millennium Park.  Evidently hoping to safeguard quiet contemplation of the “Bean” (pictured here) and all but a few other areas of the park, the City enacted an ordinance prohibiting a range of speech.

Visitors contemplate Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Sharon Mollerus

The ordinance outlawed conduct “that objectively interferes with visitors’ ability to enjoy the Park’s artistic displays” and the “making of speeches and the passing out of written communications” outside a few specified areas.  It did not, however, provide any guidance as to how to enforce those prohibitions—leading to an astonishing interaction in which a park employee explained that religion could not be discussed in the park.  On February 20th, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois concluded these provisions violated the First Amendment and issued a preliminary injunction barring their enforcement.

The parties challenging the ordinance were a group of college-student evangelists and petition circulators whom the city had rebuffed in their attempts to champion their causes in Millennium Park.  Among Chicago’s various attractions, the park held special appeal for the challengers because
Continue Reading Federal Court Enjoins Chicago Park Speech Regulations

Déjà Vu of Nashville, Inc. is a business engaged “in the presentation of female performance dance entertainment to the consenting adult public.”  More prosaically, Déjà Vu operates a strip club.  That business, you will not be surprised to learn, has its detractors.  After those detractors found themselves unable to prevent Déjà Vu from operating as a permitted use in downtown Nashville, they took aim at Déjà Vu’s planned valet service, which was to be operated by a third party.  They succeeded in persuading the city to deny the permit application for that valet service.  In return,
Continue Reading Tennessee District Court Dismisses Strip Club’s First Amendment Claim

An example of San Francisco’s warning label. Image credit: Behavioral Science and Policy. Used subject to license.

A San Francisco ordinance requiring health warnings on advertisements for some sugar-sweetened beverages has suffered an early defeat.  On January 31, the Ninth Circuit ruled, en banc, that the district court should have granted

Photo by Peter Kaminski, used pursuant to Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Fewer than six months after it was enacted as an “emergency” measure, a Cincinnati ordinance singling out billboards for special taxes has succumbed to a constitutional challenge. The ordinance, which met legal headwinds from the start, transparently aimed to make life miserable for the city’s billboard operators and consisted of two primary components: (1) a special tax on revenues from billboard advertising and (2) a hush provision preventing those operators from telling advertisers about the tax.  An Ohio judge wasted little time in finding both provisions unconstitutional and
Continue Reading Cincinnati “Billboard Tax” Found Unconstitutional Just Months After Enactment

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