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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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A billboard in Texas. Source: Austin American-Statesman.

A federal district court in Texas recently found that the City of Cedar Park’s sign code was content based and unconstitutional due to its failure to distinguish between commercial and noncommercial billboards.

A billboard company sought permits to convert existing billboards to digital signs, as well as to erect new signs.  The city denied the permit applications for failure to comply with the city’s sign code, and the billboard company sued.  In its lawsuit, the billboard company argued that the city’s decision to distinguish between on- and off-premises signs was content based, because it applied to noncommercial signs in the same manner as commercial signs.  Generally speaking, the government may not distinguish between the content or message of various noncommercial signs.  Per the billboard company, a code enforcement officer would be required to determine the permissibility of the sign based on its content, in violation of the First Amendment.  The federal district court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.  About a month ago, the court denied the city’s motion for reconsideration.
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This past summer, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that a billboard company’s challenge to a billboard restriction in Bellwood, Illinois was mooted by the fact that the company lost its lease on the property that it intended to construct a billboard.  The court affirmed dismissal of the company’s First Amendment, equal protection, and antitrust claims.

In 2005, Paramount Media obtained leasehold rights to a property in the village abutting I-290, a high-traffic interstate corridor outside of Chicago.  Although it sought the necessary state permits for a billboard, it failed to seek permits from the village.  In 2009, the village amended its sign code to prohibit new billboards.  The village later amended the code again to allow billboards on village-owned property.  Paramount then sought to lease village-owned property along the interstate, but was rebuked, as the village had leased its property to another billboard company.
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In a case that we reported on previously, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has entered a ruling in favor of a group of animal rights activists that wished to protest the Barnum and Bailey Circus in a government-owned convention center and arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

The facts of the case can be found in our earlier posts.  At issue on appeal were questions of whether the government could limit the area allowed for protests at the arena, whether the protesters could be prohibited from using profane language, and whether the convention center could prohibit the use of sound amplification.
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The plaintiff in the case against Sandy City, Utah, who sought to overturn the city’s median restriction.

Earlier this summer, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Sandy City, Utah’s restriction on sitting or standing in a street median of less than 36 inches in width met constitutional muster.  Although the regulation was principally aimed at addressing panhandling activity, the court found the regulation to be content neutral, affirming an earlier district court ruling in the case.  The court’s decision appears to offer an avenue for local governments to address safety concerns associated with panhandling, without treading on constitutionally unstable ground.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert resulted in the invalidation of many restrictions on panhandling in municipalities around the United States.  To get around the legal defects associated with panhandling prohibitions, municipalities—like Sandy City—have adopted general restrictions on sitting, standing, and remaining in street medians to achieve the same ends.
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Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Tennessee’s outdoor advertising statute, finding it to be content-based in violation of the First Amendment.  The court’s ruling affirms an earlier ruling by a federal district court.

A billboard owner challenged the Tennessee Billboard Act after he posted a sign supporting the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.  The sign was located on vacant land, and the owner had failed to secure a permit from the Tennessee Department of Transportation for the billboard, as required by the law.  The transportation department’s rationale for denying the permit was that it was not entitled to the law’s exception to permitting for on-premises signs, which the law generally defined as relating to the premises on which the sign was posted.  While the TBA was generally intended to apply exclusively to commercial off-premises speech, the state’s denial of a permit to the plaintiff appeared to apply to noncommercial speech, i.e., the owner’s support for the Olympic team.
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