Last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found that a billboard company’s challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s highway advertising law sufficiently stated a claim for relief and could proceed to further stages of litigation.

Pennsylvania’s highway advertising law contains a general prohibition on sign structures within 500 feet of a highway interchange or rest area, but the law exempts on-premises commercial and noncommercial signs (i.e. those advertising activities and products available on the property where the sign is located) and “official signs,” which are defined as those placed by public agencies.

Adams Outdoor Advertising, a billboard company, brought a First Amendment challenge, claiming that PennDOT, the state’s transportation department, had changed its interpretation of the highway advertising law, and had given varying directives regarding whether the 500-foot restriction applied to billboards on the opposite side of a highway from a rest area or interchange. Adams wanted to install a billboard opposite an interchange, but PennDOT had declined to issue a permit.  Adams contended that PennDOT’s changed interpretation of the statute made it unconstitutionally vague.  Adams further alleged that the lack of any timeframes in which PennDOT was required to act upon applications for sign permits also made the law unconstitutional.

The court first determined that it was not clear whether the law in question was content neutral, due in part to the exceptions to the permitting requirement.  The court left for a later day the determination of whether it was content neutral, reasoning that even a content neutral law would be required to satisfy intermediate scrutiny.  The court dismissed Adams’s vagueness claim, however, because it found that a person of ordinary intelligence could determine the meaning of the law from its face; the court was not persuaded that PennDOT’s changing interpretation of the statute rendered the law vague.  The court went on to find, however, that because the law was not clearly content neutral on its face, the lack of any timeframe for the issuance of sign permits would potentially create a constitutional defect in the statute.

The court additionally dismissed substantive due process and equal protection claims as well.

Adams Outdoor Advertising Limited Partnership v. Penn. Dept. of Transp., No. 5:17-cv-01253, 2018 WL 822450 (E.D. Penn. Feb. 9, 2018).

After years of extending the power of aldermanic privilege to oversized billboard approvals, the Chicago city council recently dispatched with an aspect of that practice, to the evident disappointment of at least one of its beneficiaries.  Under that longstanding policy, an alderman (Chicago’s term for a city council member) could recommend, and the council would order, that the city’s building commissioner issue or deny a permit for an oversized billboard proposed in the alderman’s ward—the requirements of the city’s zoning ordinance notwithstanding.  In an effort to create a more cohesive scheme, however, the city council recently eliminated the portion of that policy which had allowed it to order approval of oversized billboards conflicting with the zoning ordinance.

This change created something of a predicament for Image Media Advertising because it also repealed the council’s prior approval of several Image Media signs, and the city’s building commissioner refused to Continue Reading District Court Rejects (Most) Challenges to Change in Chicago Sign Regulation Practice

Webcast— Special Topics in Planning and the First Amendment: Signs, Adult Businesses, Religious Land Uses, and More

December 14, 2017

1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. EDT

CM | 1.50 | Law

CLE 1.50 through Illinois State Bar

The Planning and Law Division of the American Planning Association is pleased to host the upcoming webcast Special Topics in Planning and the First Amendment: Signs, Adult Businesses, Religious Land Uses, and More on December 14 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. EDT. Registration for individuals is $20 for PLD members and $45 for nonmembers. Registration for two or more people at one computer is $140.

Planning and zoning in areas involving rights protected under the First Amendment, including the rights to free speech and freedom of religion, can be tricky. This webinar will review several areas in which planners interact with the First Amendment, including in the areas of signs, religious land uses, adult businesses, and even some other interesting areas such as the regulation of gun shops, tattoo parlors, public monuments, and other topics. Presenters will poll the audience at the beginning of the webinar to determine specific topics in which attendees are interested, and will tailor the presentation to attendees’ interests.

Speakers include Daniel Bolin of Ancel Glink, Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti, P.C., and Evan Seeman of Robinson & Cole LLP.

Register here

Last week, a federal district court in Nevada ruled on the City of Reno’s motion to dismiss several claims brought against it by a billboard company and landowner relating to the placement of off-premises billboards in the city.

The plaintiffs in the case are a billboard company called Strict Scrutiny Media (which perhaps implies the type of judicial review that the company wanted, but did not get, in this case) and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Reno Lodge #14.  SSM obtained billboard leases at three sites owned by the Oddfellows, constructed signs on all three locations, and obtained permits for the construction of one of the signs.  In late 2016, the city informed SSM and Oddfellows that the permitted sign’s permit was invalid due to the fact that it was issued to a different sign operator, and also informed Oddfellows that two other signs that had been installed by SSM and Oddfellows were constructed without a permit in violation of the city’s code.  Oddfellows and SSM then challenged the city’s action, and also challenged the city’s ban on the erection of new, permanent off-premises signs and the city’s exemptions to permit requirements for certain temporary or permanent on-premises signs. Continue Reading Court Allows First Amendment Claims to Move Forward in Reno Sign Code Case

We are pleased to announce the publication of a new book, Local Government, Land Use, and the First Amendment: Protecting Free Speech and Expression.  The book is published by ABA Publishing, and was edited by the editor of Rocky Mountain Sign Law, Brian Connolly.  Twelve authors contributed to the book, which contains chapters on everything from signs, religious land uses, adult businesses, the public forum doctrine, and government speech.

More about the new book is available from ABA:

This book is an re-mastered, retooled version of the ABA publication “Protecting Free Speech and Expression: The First Amendment and Land Use Law” which was published by the ABA.

The book contains some theoretical discussion of First Amendment law as it pertains to land use issues (e.g. sign and billboard regulation, regulation of artwork and aesthetics, regulation of religious land uses, regulation of adult businesses, etc.), but also provides information which will be relevant to practitioners, and will include some regulatory strategies and case studies. In order to strategically illustrate their points, the authors included cases as source material.

The book is available for purchase from ABA and will also be available on Amazon.

In a case that we reported on last year, a federal district court in California granted summary judgment in favor of the City of San Diego in a case involving art murals.

Some of the facts of the case are reported in our prior post.  The San Diego sign code exempts from permitting “[p]ainted graphics that are murals, mosaics, or any type of graphic arts that are painted on a wall or fence and do not contain copy, advertising symbols, lettering, trademarks, or other references to the premises, products or services that are provided on the premises where the graphics are located or any other premises.”  Otherwise, all signs visible from the right of way are required to obtain a permit, and signs on city-controlled property must obtain a permit as well.  Messages on city-controlled property are limited to on-premises speech and “public interest” messages.  As we previously noted, the plaintiff, a mural company, was granted approval to place two wall murals in San Diego, but received a violation for the placement of a third mural.  The plaintiff believes that the annual Comic-Con event was given special treatment by the city, because certain signs posted around the city during the event were not issued citations. Continue Reading San Diego’s Motion for Summary Judgment Granted in Mural Case

Earlier this year, a federal district court in Washington granted the City of Port Orchard’s motion for summary judgment with respect to alleged violations of the First Amendment rights of Engley Diversified, Inc., a billboard company.  Engley sought damages under federal and state law for what it alleged were wrongful denials of billboard permits by the city.

The case, which has a lengthy and twisted procedural history, stems from the submission of six permit applications by Engley to the city in 2010.  Engley sought to construct three billboards in the city.  The city’s code enforcement officer denied the permits, interpreting the sign code as prohibiting them.  Engley appealed to the city’s hearing officer.  During the pendency of the appeal, the city council enacted an ordinance prohibiting all off-premises advertising billboards throughout the city.  The city’s hearing examiner subsequently denied the appeal on the merits, finding that the code enforcement officer’s interpretation of the sign code was not clearly erroneous.  In December 2010, Engley appealed to the city council, Continue Reading City’s Denial of Billboard Permits Does Not Violate First Amendment: Federal Court

The advertisement above was proposed to be placed in the Philadelphia airport. Source: ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In August, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision holding that the Philadelphia airport’s advertising policy was unreasonable in light of the purposes of the advertising space, in violation of the First Amendment.  The airport had previously enacted a policy that prohibited the display of any noncommercial advertising in city-owned advertising space.

The challenge was brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which wanted to place an advertisement in the airport that read “Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world’s people and 25% of the world’s prisoners.  Let’s build a better America together.  NAACP.org/smartandsafe.”  The city rejected the advertisement.

The appeals court assumed for purposes of argument that the city’s airport advertising space was a limited public forum, but found that the advertising policy was not reasonable.  The city’s purported interests in the prohibition of noncommercial advertising were to raise revenue and to avoid controversy in the airport.  The court found that the prohibition on noncommercial advertising did not reasonably advance either goal, because there was no evidence that the restriction on noncommercial advertising would advance the airport’s revenue goals and the airport was otherwise full of televisions and newsstands that already contained noncommercial speech that could be controversial.

The Third Circuit’s analysis is interesting in several respects.  The court undertook a long, detailed analysis of the litigation burdens in a limited public forum case.  Philadelphia argued that the court should analyze the policy under the rational basis standard of review, where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the government’s policy was not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.  However, the court, relying on several Supreme Court decisions, found that because the case addressed a fundamental right—the freedom of speech—the burden of proving that the policy was reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum was on the city.  This approach to burdens in limited public forum cases imposes a higher standard on the government to ensure that a regulation is actually reasonable.

The court also went into a lengthy discussion about how the city could meet its burden in this instance.  Again relying on prior Supreme Court precedent, the court found that a government need not back up every conclusion regarding speech in a limited forum with evidence, but some record evidence could be appropriate in helping the city to meet its burden.  Noting the holding in United States v. Kokinda, the court indicated that common sense and historical experience can also underlie a government policy restricting certain speech from a limited public forum.  With respect to the Philadelphia airport advertising policy, the court found that the city had provided neither record evidence nor any common sense rationale for the noncommercial speech prohibition.  In particular, the court focused on the deposition of one of the airport’s managers, who admitted in his deposition that the noncommercial ban did not actually do anything to further the city’s interest in revenue and could not establish how the ban actually helped travelers avoid potentially offensive content.

This decision follows two other recent cases out of Chicago and Fort Wayne that have also held advertising policies in limited public fora to be unreasonable.

N.A.A.C.P. v. City of Philadelphia, 834 F.3d 435 (3d Cir. 2016).

A digital billboard in New Jersey. Source: nj.com.

In a surprising decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court found earlier this month that a township ordinance prohibiting digital billboards violated the free speech provisions of the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.

Franklin Township, New Jersey, a suburban community in Somerset County, enacted sign regulations that allowed billboards in zoning districts near interstate highways.  The regulations prohibited digital billboards.  The township justified its regulations on the basis of traffic safety and aesthetics.  Various township bodies suggested that the ban on digital billboards was enacted because the township did not have sufficient information on the safety of digital billboards in order to craft appropriate regulations.  Because state law imposes dispersal requirements on billboards, it was established that the township could have just three static billboards and just one digital billboard.

In 2009, E&J Equities sought a variance to allow the placement of a digital billboard in the township.  Because digital billboards were not allowed, the request was brought before the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.  The ZBA did not approve the application.

Thereafter, E&J brought an action against the township in state trial court.  The trial court found that the township failed to meet intermediate scrutiny Continue Reading New Jersey Supreme Court: Digital Billboard Ban Unconstitutional

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