Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s summary judgment order in order favor of a non-theist group that sought to place a nonreligious display in the rotunda of the Texas state capitol during the holiday season.  The lower court found that the state, in denying the group’s display, had engaged in viewpoint discrimination.  However, the court found that the order granting retrospective relief was improper, but directed the lower to court to consider the group’s claim for prospective relief and reinstated its claim that the state’s regulations constituted an impermissible prior restraint.

We reported on this case in 2017.  The facts of the case can be found on our earlier post.  Since our last report on the case, the district court entered a declaratory summary judgment in favor of Freedom From Religion Foundation, finding that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s and Texas State Preservation Board Executive Director Rod Welsh’s interference in the matter constituted viewpoint discrimination.  However, the district court denied summary judgment on the group’s Establishment Clause claim and a claim against Abbott in his individual capacity.
Continue Reading Fifth Circuit Remands in Texas Capitol Rotunda Display Case

An Adams Outdoor billboard in Madison. Source: Madison.com.

This week, a federal district court in Wisconsin ruled that Adams Outdoor Advertising’s claims that the Madison sign ordinance is unconstitutional could not survive summary judgment.  The ruling in the city’s favor is further support for the proposition that Reed v. Town of Gilbert does not upset longstanding commercial speech doctrine.

The Madison sign ordinance generally prohibits billboard advertising in most areas of the city.  Where they are permitted, billboards are subject to strict regulation as to setback, height, sign area, and spacing between signs.  The city also operates an exchange program, whereby owners of signs that are removed due to redevelopment can “bank” their sign area and obtain a permit in another area of the city.  The city also prohibits digital signs.

Beginning in 2016, Adams Outdoor sought permits for billboards in the city.  It first sought to avail itself of the sign exchange program with respect to one of its signs, but the city determined that the sign was not eligible for the banking program.  Adams Outdoor then submitted 26 applications to the city in 2017 seeking to modify or replace existing billboards.  The city denied 25 of the 26 permits on the grounds that the sign ordinance did not permit the modifications in question.  Adams Outdoor appealed 22 of the denials to the city’s Urban Design Commission, while also filing a lawsuit in federal court.  After the filing of the lawsuit, the city adopted a variety of amendments to its sign ordinance, to ensure that the ordinance complied with Reed.
Continue Reading Billboard Company’s Challenge to Madison, Wisconsin Sign Code Fails

Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Source: neworleans.com.

This week, a federal district court denied the City of New Orleans’s motion to dismiss a First Amendment claim challenging the application of the city’s short-term rental law.

Plaintiff Dawn Adams Wheelahan challenged the city’s short-term rental regulations on a variety of grounds.  The city had revoked her license to rent her property on a short-term basis, in part for failing to display her license on the property or in her advertising of the property for short-term rental.  Wheelahan brought several claims against the city, including a Fifth Amendment takings claim, an Eighth Amendment excessive fines claim, and other constitutional claims.  Included in the complaint were claims of an unconstitutional prior restraint and content-based restrictions under the First Amendment.  The plaintiff argued, in essence, that the city’s permitting requirement and other restrictions on short-term rentals operated as a prior restraint on her advertising of the short-term rental, and that the requirement that she include her license in advertising was content based, compelled speech.
Continue Reading Court Denies New Orleans’s Motion to Dismiss First Amendment Claim Against Short-Term Rental Ordinance

Large religious gatherings, such as Catholic masses, may result in virus transmission, but may be difficult for U.S. governments to prohibit. Source: Catholic Sun.

Since the rest of the world seems to be taking a break from regular activities amid the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ll take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming to offer our view of the pandemic through the lens of our favorite topic:  First Amendment rights.

China’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan is well-documented.  Mandatory quarantines, citywide shutdowns, prohibitions on gatherings, and other such actions were implemented swiftly.  We in the United States have not yet seen such a response, and there’s no telling whether such a response will be needed.  But because we enjoy more individual liberties than do Chinese citizens, what might be the legal consequences of some of these actions?  We offer some thoughts below for state and local regulators:
Continue Reading COVID-19 and the First Amendment: Thoughts for State and Local Regulators

Our friends at the APA Planning and Law Division will host a webinar on Deregulatory Trends in Land Use later this month.  We encourage our readers to register!  A description of the webinar and registration link follows:

Rising housing costs and environmental concerns have led to efforts to “upzone” communities by deregulating limits on higher-density

A sign welcomes visitors to Bentley Manor in Shavano Park. Source: mytexashomeresource.com

It is a rare free speech case where a court finds a regulation content based, but still upholds the regulation.  That very scenario played out in a federal district court in Texas, when it upheld the City of Shavano Park’s sign regulation prohibiting certain banner signs.

Shavano Park, a suburb of San Antonio, has a sign code that controls the placement of signs on private property.  The code allows one temporary sign per residential lot, with some additional allowances when properties are for sale or during election seasons.  The code also allows the placement of banner signs in residential zoning districts, with some limitations.  These limitations include that such signs may be erected by a homeowners’ association, they may be placed at entrances to residential neighborhoods, no more than one banner sign is allowed per owner, and banner signs are only permitted in the week before the first Tuesday in October, which coincides with National Night Out.  The sign code’s stated rationale for its restrictions focuses largely on aesthetics.
Continue Reading Texas City’s Banner Sign Limitation Found Content Based, But Survives First Amendment Challenge

A marine mammal swims at Six Flags in Vallejo, California. Source: San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Vallejo, California’s requirement that a person obtain a permit before using a sound amplification is likely unconstitutional.  The court’s decision reverses the district court’s order denying the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, and allows the case to proceed to additional stages of litigation.

Joseph Cuviello is an animal rights activist in Vallejo who wished to protest alleged animal mistreatment at Six Flags Discovery Park, an amusement park.  Cuviello has been active in protesting Six Flags since 2006.  In 2014, Cuviello decided to begin protesting on a public sidewalk outside of the park, using a bullhorn.  Vallejo, however, requires a permit for the use of sound amplification devices, and the city imposes restrictions on the use of such devices.  Cuviello filed suit against the city, challenging the permit requirement as an unconstitutional prior restraint, and the ordinance as impermissibly vague and content based.  Cuviello eventually abandoned the latter arguments, and the court’s decision focused entirely on the prior restraint question.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Finds That Permit Requirement For Bullhorns Violates First Amendment

Last week, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order denying a motion by the plaintiff in the case of Evans v. Sandy City for an en banc rehearing.  In ruling on the motion, the court issued a revised opinion.  In the revised opinion, the court reaffirmed that Sandy City, Utah’s prohibition on sitting

A Broke Ass Phone location in Strongsville, Ohio. Source: Broke Ass Phone.

In a somewhat entertaining case out of Boardman Township, Ohio, the state court of appeals has ruled that a business called “Broke Ass Phone” may display its sign under the Boardman Township zoning ordinance, which otherwise prohibits obscene or offensive signs.

Broke Ass Phone is a company that specializes in repairing broken smartphones and other devices.  In 2015, the company applied for a sign permit in Boardman to allow the company to post its business sign.  The township zoning inspector denied the permit application, finding that it violated the township code provision prohibiting obscene signs.  The applicant then appealed the decision to the township’s Board of Zoning Appeals.  In 2017, the board denied the appeal.  The company then appealed the denial to the local common pleas court, asserting First Amendment arguments.  The common pleas court affirmed the decision of the zoning appeals board, and the company appealed to the state appeals court.
Continue Reading Ohio Appeals Court Finds That “Broke Ass Phone” Is Not Obscene, May Be Displayed On A Business Sign

Murals in Oakland, California. Source: Oaktown Art.

In August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s rejection of claims by the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area that the City of Oakland’s program requiring developers to contribute 1% of the cost of a development project to public art violated the First Amendment.  In an unpublished opinion, the circuit court concluded that, although such a program implicated free speech concerns, it did not compel any particular speech.  The court noted that the program offered developers wide latitude to determine how they might incorporate artwork into their projects.  The court agreed that the program was related to the city’s interests in encouraging aesthetic interest in the community.
Continue Reading Federal Court Denies Challenge to Oakland, California’s “1% for Art” Program