This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer associate Laura Salter.  Laura is a rising third-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School.

In late May, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a Church’s application for injunctive relief from California’s temporary restrictions on religious gatherings in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. Governor Newsom’s executive order, which parallels mandates issued in several states since March, limited both religious and secular public gatherings in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.  The executive order also allowed certain businesses to remain open–for example, grocery stores and hardware stores.

The order temporarily capped worship service attendance at 25% of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The applicants in South Bay filed suit under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, contending that secular activities impacted by the order, such as retail shopping or on-site office work, were afforded more generous occupancy caps than places of worship, and that the discrepancy amounted to unjustified and unconstitutional religious discrimination.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously denied the church’s application for an injunction pending appeal, after the district court in the case denied the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order.  The church sought a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court, which would have the effect of staying the executive order while the case was being litigated.
Continue Reading Supreme Court Denies Church’s Application for Injunctive Relief in First Amendment Challenge to COVID-19 Restrictions

A billboard for Lion’s Den (not a truck trailer). Source: i70signshow.com.

In late April, in a case filed by an adult bookstore challenging the application of Kentucky’s Billboard Act to one of its advertisements, a federal judge of the Western District of Kentucky found the entire Billboard Act to violate the First Amendment.

Lion’s Den is a chain of adult “superstores” with locations along major highways throughout the Midwestern United States.  At one particular location along I-65 in Kentucky, Lion’s Den affixed one of its billboards to the side of a truck trailer, such that it was visible from the highway.  The Kentucky transportation department ordered Lion’s Den to remove the sign, on the grounds that it was not secured to the ground and located on a mobile structure and because the store lacked a permit for the billboard.  The basis for the state’s order was that the Kentucky Billboard Act prohibited the sign.  Under the statute, however, the regulations in question were only applied to off-premises signs.
Continue Reading Federal Judge Rules Kentucky’s Billboard Act Unconstitutional In Its Entirety

Legacy Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Source: Legacy Church.

Last week, in one of the first judicial decisions addressing a First Amendment challenge to state-level social distancing requirements, a federal judge in New Mexico has denied preliminary injunctive relief to a church.  This outcome differs from another recently-decided case in Kentucky, where a district court enjoined enforcement of a city restriction that applied exclusively to drive-in church services.

Like most other states, New Mexico has taken significant steps to combat the coronavirus.  These actions began on March 11 with the declaration of a state of emergency, and urging from public officials to avoid gatherings and non-essential travel, and to engage in social distancing.  On March 24, the state ordered non-essential businesses to close, and prohibited indoor gatherings of more than five people, with a special exemption for houses of worship.  That was followed on March 27 by an order for recent travelers to self-quarantine.  On April 6, the state issued another order, this time prohibiting outdoor gatherings, but again exempting religious worship.  With Passover, Ramadan, and Easter approaching, the governor and health department encouraged religious organizations to use online methods of outreach.  On April 11, the day prior to Easter, the state issued a modified no-gathering order, this time including religious organizations in its sweep.

Legacy Church, which has nearly 20,000 members and locations in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, and Edgewood, livestreamed its Easter services, but did not prohibit members from attending services in person.  The church has indicated that it plans to continue to hold in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The church filed its lawsuit against the state and its Secretary of Health, on the evening of April 11, and on April 14, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order allowing Legacy to conduct in-person services.
Continue Reading Federal Court in New Mexico Denies Temporary Restraining Order in First Amendment Challenge to COVID-19 Restrictions

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

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

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