New York City taxi cabs. Source: New York Post.

In a decision issued last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission can restrict in-vehicle commercial advertising in for-hire vehicles, including yellow cabs, Uber, and Lyft.  The decision reverses an earlier ruling by a district court holding that the ban violated the First Amendment rights of advertisers.

New York City’s TLC regulates for-hire vehicles in the city.  For nearly 20 years, the TLC has prohibited commercial advertising in for-hire vehicles, except on screens installed in yellow cabs called “Taxi TV,” which otherwise allow patrons to use credit cards to pay their cab fares.  Noncommercial messages are permitted to be displayed in for-hire vehicles.  Vugo is a company that wished to sell a software platform for advertising in Uber and Lyft vehicles, which are not otherwise equipped with Taxi TV.  The TLC rules prohibited Vugo’s proposal, and Vugo sought relief in federal court. 
Continue Reading

The Planned Parenthood location on Virginia Cove in Memphis. Source: The Business Journals.

In a case we reported on last year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in a case involving protests outside of a Planned Parenthood location in a Memphis, Tennessee business.  The case previously turned on the fact that the street in front of the clinic was a private street.  The district court had determined that, because the street was private, it could not be a public forum in which anti-abortion protests could take place.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision, issued yesterday, turned on the fact that the private street in question was “physically indistinguishable” from adjacent public streets.  The court reasoned that, because the private street was paved and had no signage indicating that it was privately-owned, a reasonable member of the public would likely consider the street public.  Thus, the court classified the street as a traditional public forum.  The court was also swayed by the fact that there appeared to be a dedication of the street on the subdivision plat for the business park in question, and that the public had impliedly accepted the street as a public street through public use of the street.  The court went on to apply strict scrutiny (although it did not conduct any analysis as to whether the restrictions on the street’s use were content based), and reversed the district court’s order.
Continue Reading

The Bladensburg cross. Source: The Humanist.

In a widely-anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last month that a large concrete cross located on public property at a major intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, could remain in place.  The nearly 90-year-old cross, which was placed to honor victims of World War I, had been challenged by an atheist organization as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion.

In a fractured decision, seven of the Justices agreed that the cross could stay.  Writing for a plurality of the Court, Justice Alito argued that, although the Latin cross has a religious meaning, its longtime placement at a major intersection as a war memorial meant that it had taken on a secular meaning as well.  In light of this longstanding history, he concluded that the cross was not a violation of religious liberty.  In rendering his opinion, Justice Alito eschewed use of the widely-criticized Lemon test, developed by the Supreme Court in 1971, which looks at the government’s purpose and the effect of a regulation to determine whether an unconstitutional establishment of religion is created.  Justices Breyer and Kagan concurred in the opinion, noting that each Establishment Clause case must be reviewed individually and observing that no particular judicial test works in every situation.
Continue Reading

The Portland ordinance required a sign much like this one to be posted on an unreinforced masonry building. Source: Willamette Week.

This post was authored by Alexandra Haggarty.  Alex is a summer clerk at Otten Johnson, and a rising 3L at the University of Colorado Law School.

In a case challenging a Portland, Oregon ordinance, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction to a group of building owners who would have been compelled to post a potentially misleading message.  The judge, suspecting the city was not forthcoming about its real motive behind the ordinance, found the requirements failed strict scrutiny and burdened First Amendment rights.

Portland has long encouraged owners of unreinforced masonry buildings (“URMs”) to retrofit and reinforce their properties to be stronger in the event of a major earthquake, but has remained unable to garner enough political and public support to mandate doing so.  Instead, it implemented an ordinance requiring owners of designated buildings to display exterior placards disclosing the risks of major earthquakes in URMs. The ordinance required the placard state: “This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake.”  The ordinance also required owners to (1) include a tenant notification provision in lease applications disclaiming risk and (2) document compliance with the ordinance.
Continue Reading

The American Legion in Howell Township. Source: www.whmi.com.

Two weeks ago, a federal district court granted the motion to dismiss of Joe Daus, the zoning administrator for Howell Township, Michigan, in a case challenging the township’s billboard regulations.

Crossroads Outdoor is a billboard company that sought to install a sign on property owned by the local American Legion post in Howell Township.  The township, through Daus, denied the variance on the grounds that it was not permissible to place the sign in the parking lot of the American Legion.  After some back and forth on the application, the township eventually passed a moratorium on new signs in 2018 pending the adoption of a new sign ordinance.  Crossroads’s sign application has not yet been approved.
Continue Reading

Tattooing is protected by the First Amendment. Source: Creative Commons.

Two weeks ago, a federal district court in California granted preliminary injunctive relief to a tattoo shop owner who challenged the City of Montebello, California’s geographic restrictions on body art establishments.

Montebello’s regulation prohibits tattoo parlors within 1,000 feet of certain sensitive uses, including residential properties, schools, libraries, and religious institutions.  The effect of the regulation is to limit such establishments to two small shopping centers in the city.  Tattoo parlors are also subject to a conditional use permit requirement, in which the city is required to determine that the use will not have an adverse effect on surrounding properties and that it is consistent with city planning goals.
Continue Reading

An apartment advertised for short-term rental. Source: Creative Commons.

Last month, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in a case initiated by HomeAway and Airbnb challenging the City of Santa Monica, California’s short-term rental regulations.  The plaintiffs in the case alleged violations of the First Amendment right to freedom of association.

Located on the Pacific coast and known as a tourist destination, by early 2018, Santa Monica had nearly 2,000 Airbnb or HomeAway listings—in a city of just 90,000 residents.  In response to the various problems created by short-term rentals, the city council passed an ordinance limiting short-term rentals to only “home-shares,” where the resident of the unit is present during the rental period.  Santa Monica also collects taxes on short-term rentals, requires licenses, and imposes disclosure obligations on hosts.  HomeAway and Airbnb filed a variety of challenges to the ordinance, and moved for a preliminary injunction, which was denied by the district court.
Continue Reading

The rats and cats are back.  We first reported on this case in 2016, after the Seventh Circuit determined that it might be moot.  As it turns out, the case was not moot, and “Scabby the Rat” returned to the appeals court again.  In a ruling last month, the Seventh Circuit found that the district court properly determined that the town’s ordinance prohibiting the inflatable rat was not content based and accorded with the First Amendment.

The facts of the case can be found in our earlier post.  After the Seventh Circuit suggested that the case might be moot due to an agreement between the union and employer, the case went back to the district court.  The district court subsequently found the case not to be moot, as the union was seeking damages for its inability to place the rat in the right-of-way.  In its ruling, the district court then found that the ordinance in question—which prohibited the placement of private signs in town right-of-ways—was content neutral and survived First Amendment scrutiny.
Continue Reading

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

Early this month, the federal district court for the Southern District of New York ruled that a New York City law requiring food service industry employers to provide a payroll deduction system for their employees to make donations to non-profit organizations did not violate the First Amendment rights of such employers.

New York City’s law became effective in late 2017.  Fast food establishments are required to create and maintain deduction systems.  Upon request from an employee, the establishment must deduct a donation to a non-profit organization from the employee’s pay check and remit it to the designated organization.  Non-profit organizations that receive funds through the system are required to reimburse employers for the cost of maintaining the deduction system, if requested by the employers.
Continue Reading