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

Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The flagpoles can be seen on the right in the photo. Source: Boston Globe.

The City of Boston has three flagpoles in the plaza in front of its city hall.  Typically, the city displays an American flag and POW/MIA flag on one pole and the flag of Massachusetts on the second pole.  The third pole is used for the City of Boston flag, or alternatively, the flag of a third party.  The third pole has been used for flags of foreign nations, civic organizations, the LGBT rainbow flag, and others.  Parties can submit applications to fly their flag on the third pole, and the city has guidelines that prohibits flags that involve illegal or dangerous activities or conflict with scheduled events.  The city reviews applications to determine whether a flag is consistent with the city’s message, policies, and practices, but does not have any guidelines as to the content of the flags.  When an applicant was denied the opportunity to place a “Christian flag” on the City Hall on the grounds that the city refrains from flying religious flags on the Plaza, he filed suit.

Late last month, on the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, a federal district court found for the city.  The court determined that the display of flags in front of City Hall constituted government speech.  Applying the factors established by the Supreme Court in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the court found that flags are a longstanding form of government speech, the flags in front of City Hall are likely understood to be government speech, and the city has effective control over the flags in front of City Hall.  Finding that the flags constitute government speech, that effectively ended the First Amendment inquiry.
Continue Reading

A photo of the cross in Bayview Park. Source: Fox News.

Last week, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a 75-year old cross displayed in Pensacola, Florida’s Bayview Park was a violation of certain individuals’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion.  But the court’s decision was based entirely on its “prior panel precedent” rule—meaning that the court was bound by a 35-year old decision on nearly identical facts—and the panel openly questioned the correctness of its decision.

Three individuals, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, brought the case in federal district court in Florida.  They alleged that they felt offended by the presence of the cross in the park.  Pensacola moved to dismiss on standing grounds, arguing that the plaintiffs’ injuries were sufficient ethereal so as not to pass muster under current-day standing doctrine.  The parties also filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question of whether the cross violated the Establishment Clause.
Continue Reading

[The following case centered on an ethnic slur and this post therefore includes two references to that slur.]

Reaffirming the First Amendment’s virtual prohibition on viewpoint discrimination, the Second Circuit recently held that New York state could not prohibit a vendor from participating in public lunch program simply because its name and menu featured ethnic slurs.

The case emerged from a dispute over access to the publicly owned Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York.  After years of contracting with a single vendor to supply food for a daily lunch program hosted in the plaza, New York’s Office of General Services (OGS) chose instead to feature a rotating line-up of food trucks—similar to Civic Center Eats program in Denver’s Civic Center Park—subject to a permitting regime.  Plaintiff Wandering Dago, Inc. (“WD”), which operates a food truck with the same name, applied to OGS for a vending permit.  Though the application proceeded normally at first, when OGS officials realized the term
Continue Reading

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

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

This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer law clerk David Brewster.  David is a rising third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two opinions addressing separate free speech issues.  While neither decision related specifically to local government regulations, both hold some important lessons for local government practice, as we outline below.

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the Court struck down a North Carolina law making it a felony for registered sex offenders “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.”  Gerard Packingham, having previously been convicted of “taking indecent liberties with a child,” was cited for violating the law when he posted a statement on his Facebook page about a “positive experience in traffic court.”

At trial, Packingham filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the charge violated his First Amendment free speech rights.  The trial court denied Packingham’s motion, and he was subsequently convicted.  Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina struck down the law on First Amendment grounds, explaining that “the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse.”  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding the law constitutional “in all respects,” and explaining that the law was carefully tailored to prevent sex offenders from accessing “only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors.”
Continue Reading

This post was authored by Otten Johnson summer law clerk David Brewster.  David is a rising third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction preventing an Indiana county from denying a marijuana advocacy organization’s request to demonstrate.  We first reported on this case last December.  As a refresher, the Higher Society of Indiana is a non-profit organization currently lobbying for “full legalization of Cannabis in Indiana.”   In 1999, the Tippecanoe County board declared the courthouse grounds a “closed forum,” and enacted the following policy for those seeking demonstration approval on the grounds:

Only displays and events sponsored and prepared by a department or office of county government will be allowed in the windows of the Tippecanoe County Office Building or on the grounds of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse. Said displays and events shall be scheduled through the Board of Commissioners of the County of Tippecanoe.
Continue Reading

An aerial view of the Grand Haven cross. Source: Grand Haven Tribune.

Late last month, in an unpublished opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals determined that a monument commemorating those who served and died in the Vietnam War, located on land owned by the City of Grand Haven, was government speech and not subject to First Amendment limitations.  The monument, placed on a sand dune along the Grand River, contains a lifting mechanism that allows the monument to display a cross or, when certain attachments are included on the monument, an anchor.  When members of the community requested that the monument be lifted to display the cross, the city would raise the lifting mechanism.

In 2015, the city passed a resolution allowing the monument to display only the anchor, not the cross.  Members of a local church challenged the resolution as violating the free speech and equal protection provisions of the Michigan Constitution.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the city on the grounds that the monument was government speech.
Continue Reading

One of the images that FFRF wished to display in the Texas capitol. Source: New York Post.

Late last month, a federal court in Texas denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the State of Texas in a case challenging the state’s policy for allowing privately-sponsored displays in the state capitol building.

The Texas State Preservation Board allows private individuals and groups to display exhibits “for a public purpose” in the public areas of the Texas state capitol building, subject to the board’s approval.  A private group, Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for separation of church and state, wished to display an exhibit in December 2015 depicting life-size figures celebrating the birth of the Bill of Rights, along with
Continue Reading