Protests & Demonstrations

Two men were arrested for disorderly conduct in an anti-abortion demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In addition to bringing a Fourth Amendment claim against the Little Rock Police Department, the men challenged the Arkansas disorderly conduct statute and the city’s permit requirement as violations of their free speech rights under the First Amendment.  A federal district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed on appeal earlier this month.

Arkansas’s criminal code contains several actions that constitute disorderly conduct, including:  fighting; in violent, threatening, or tumultuous behavior; unreasonable or excessive noise; the use of “abusive or obscene language, or mak[ing] an obscene gesture, in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response; disruption or disturbance of meetings or gatherings; obstructing traffic; and other actions.  The plaintiffs argued that the statute was vague and overbroad.  The appeals court found that the statute was not vague, primarily because it contained a mens rea requirement—that is, that the violator have a particular intent to engage in disorderly conduct.  The court used similar logic in upholding the statute against the plaintiffs’ overbreadth claim, finding that the statute was content neutral and that its objective mens rea requirement precluded an overbreadth challenge. Continue Reading Arkansas Abortion Protesters Lose Appeal in Vagueness, Overbreadth, and Prior Restraint Case

An aerial view of the Virginia Run Cove development. Source: Google.

Last month, a federal district court in Tennessee denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a man who wished to picket a Planned Parenthood location in a business park in Memphis.  The court determined that the private street on which the plaintiff, John Brindley, intended to picket was not a public roadway and therefore was not a traditional public forum requiring content neutral speech regulations.

Planned Parenthood’s offices are located on Virginia Run Cove, a two-lane street that serves multiple businesses located within the park.  The park is zoned as a planned unit development, and the street serves the businesses located within the park.  Brindley sought to protest Planned Parenthood on Virginia Run Cove, but was asked to move by a police officer on the premise that Virginia Run Cove is a private street.  Brindley subsequently moved to a nearby public street, but was dissatisfied that his protest location was nearly 300 feet from his target audience, Planned Parenthood.  Brindley subsequently filed his complaint in federal district court.

In conducting a forum analysis to determine whether Virginia Run Cove was a public forum for First Amendment purposes, the court noted that some public fora are privately-owned.  These areas include public sidewalks that run across private property, sidewalks on private university campuses, and even the streets of corporate-owned communities.  However, the court observed, private areas are not converted into public fora where the owner of the property allows a more limited use of the property. Continue Reading In Tennessee Planned Parenthood Case, Court Finds Private Street is Not a Public Forum

The Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in Denver. Source: CGL Companies.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve reported on a case involving pamphleteering activities on the plaza that lies outside of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse here in our home city of Denver, Colorado.  Things have gotten interesting again, as the Tenth Circuit last month reversed a decision of the federal district court finding the City and County of Denver in contempt following its decision to arrest an individual for distributing literature on the plaza.

We’ll first bring our readers back up to speed.  This case involved the question of whether a group could lawfully distribute literature about jury nullification on the plaza.  The Second Judicial District, a state court, prohibited demonstrations and literature distribution on the plaza.  The plaza area is owned by Denver, and the state court is a tenant on the property.  Denver Police arrested a member of the pamphleteering group, which resulted in a First Amendment claim against the city and the state court.  Denver stipulated that the plaza was a public forum, and further stipulated that it would not enforce the prohibitions on literature distribution, but the Second Judicial District disagreed with Denver’s position.  The federal court then entered a preliminary injunction against the Second Judicial District, and dismissed Denver from the case.  A prior Tenth Circuit order upheld the preliminary injunction.  On a motion for permanent injunction, the court agreed with the Second Judicial District and found that the plaza was not a traditional public forum. Continue Reading In Another Chapter of Denver Courthouse Plaza Battle, Tenth Circuit Reverses Contempt Order

In mid-July, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s entry of summary judgment for the City of Shaker Heights, Ohio and one of its police officer co-defendants in a sign case arising out of animosity between two neighbors in the wealthy Cleveland-area suburb.

Upon the belief that her neighbors, Richard and Elizabeth Minkowetz, were committing acts of vandalism against her property, Gladys Wilson began posting signs in her windows facing the Minkowetzes’ property.  Examples of the signs’ messages include “nasty lil twit,” “Peeping Tom Exposed,” “Zoomed Zapped and Snapped,” and “Thur. 10:50.”  After the Minkowetzes complained to the city about the signs, the city dispatched one of its police officers to Wilson’s home, and she was later charged with disorderly conduct.  In response, Wilson filed claims against the city, one of its police officers, and its prosecutor under Section 1983 alleging, among other things, a First Amendment retaliation claim.  She also alleged malicious prosecution and equal protection claims. Continue Reading In a “Nasty” Neighborhood Sign Dispute, Shaker Heights, Ohio Prevails

Tents along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Source: Chicago Tribune.

Earlier this month, in a case challenging the denial of permits to erect a homeless “tent city” in front of a former elementary school in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, a federal magistrate judge dismissed the organizers’ First Amendment claim.  While one count of the plaintiffs’ complaint will move forward, the order dismisses all of the plaintiffs’ federal claims.

Uptown Tent City Organizers and its leader, Andy Thayer, sought a permit from the City of Chicago to establish a tent city in the former elementary school site.  In 2016, several homeless people had resided at the site, but the city fenced it off and the homeless people moved to various locations under viaducts along the city’s famed Lake Shore Drive.  The plaintiff filed claims in state court challenging the city’s denial of the permit, and the city removed the case to federal court.  The plaintiffs lost a motion for preliminary injunction, and subsequently amended their complaint to add First Amendment free speech and assembly, Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment, Fourth Amendment illegal seizure, Fifth Amendment taking, and various state law claims.  Continue Reading Homeless “Tent City” Is Not Expressive Conduct Protected by the First Amendment, Says Federal Court

Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Source: Reuters.

While the Rocky Mountain Sign Blog is geared toward issues that involve free speech and land use law, we geek out about any Supreme Court case that addresses First Amendment issues, even those outside of our weird little land use world.  Yesterday, our appetite for Supreme Court First Amendment law was only moderately satiated.  The U.S. Supreme Court issued its much-awaited ruling in the hot-button First Amendment case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

In the case, a gay couple sought relief when a baker refused to bake them a wedding cake on the grounds that his religious beliefs did not support same-sex marriage.  The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, prohibited the baker from denying service to the couple, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Civil Rights Commission’s decision.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that statements made by members of the Civil Rights Commission evinced hostility toward religion, and that the Commission’s action thus violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  During their deliberations, Commission members had commented on prior use of religion to condone discriminatory action, and made other statements that the Supreme Court interpreted as being hostile toward religion.  Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, and Justices Kagan, Gorsuch, and Thomas authored concurrences in the decision.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented, on the grounds that they did not believe that any statements of the Commission evidenced discrimination.

While the entire Court declined to address the appellant’s free speech claim, the conservative duo of Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separately to address that issue.  Justice Thomas began his concurrence by noting that the Court has previously held anti-discrimination laws unconstitutional as applied when the discriminatory conduct at issue is expressive, citing Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston and Boy Scouts of America v. Dale.  The two justices, applying a long line of cases that have held various forms of artistic expression to be First Amendment-protected, found that Masterpiece Cakeshop’s baker, Jack Phillips, engages in expressive activity when he creates wedding cakes.  Once they found that Phillips’s cake-making was expressive, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would have applied strict scrutiny review.  They expressed concern with the fact that Colorado law would apparently command someone engaged in expressive activity to express particular views, whereas prior Supreme Court case law makes clear that offensive speech cannot constitutionally be prohibited.

While the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop gives us little with respect to the Court’s direction on free speech issues, the concurrence of Justice Thomas at least hints at the direction that two of the justices would lean.  We’ll have to wait for the next major religion-free speech battle to see how this one plays out.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, ___ S. Ct. ____, 2018 WL 2465172 (U.S. Jun. 4, 2018).

Silvie Pomicter protesting outside Mohegan Sun Arena. Source: The Times Leader.

We previously reported on this case, wherein a group of animal rights activists sought to protest the Barnum and Bailey Circus outside of Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  In 2016, the district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction against the convention center’s protest policy, which required protesters to gather in two areas of approximately 500 to 700 square feet in the arena’s parking lot.  The facts of the case are reported in our earlier blog post. Continue Reading Animal Rights Activists Win Another Round in Circus Case

James Deferio protesting same-sex marriage in Syracuse. Source: Syracuse University Student Voice.

In a case that we reported on in 2016, a federal district court in New York has granted summary judgment to the plaintiff.  The case involves the regulation of protest speech—specifically, a protester’s activities during an LGBTQ rights parade—on public sidewalks.

A brief recap of the facts is merited.  James Deferio is a Christian evangelist who has protested each year at the Central New York Pride Parade and Festival, held in Syracuse.  Each year, the city issued a permit to the organizers of the parade.  That permit indicated that no speakers would be allowed on sidewalks adjacent to the parade.  At the 2014 event, Syracuse police officers threatened Deferio with arrest in reliance on the permit, and he relocated from the site.  In 2015, the city again approved a permit for the parade, giving the parade exclusive control over First Amendment activities and limiting the use of sound amplification devices near the parade route.  The 2015 permit also allowed for a zone where protest activities could occur.  Deferio again attended the parade to protest.  After minor verbal altercations ensued, a Syracuse police officer told Deferio that he could be arrested for his activities, and he relocated to the zone designated for protest activity. Continue Reading Summary Judgment Granted to Christian Evangelist in Syracuse Pride Parade Case

Last week, the Tenth Circuit vacated a preliminary injunction preventing Denver International Airport from enforcing much of its public protest policy.  We reported on that injunction after it issued and now return to discuss its reversal on appeal.  In short, the unanimous appellate panel concluded that the airport could reasonably require a seven-day permitting period for protests, even if that requirement quashed most spontaneous demonstrations.

Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal

A bit of background, though, before we get any further: after the Trump administration unveiled its so-called “Muslim Ban”  (more formally, but less memorably, titled Executive Order 13769) suspending nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, spontaneous protests broke out in airports nationwide.  Plaintiffs in this case joined in those protests at DIA, where Continue Reading Tenth Circuit: No Constitutional Need for Speedier Protest Permitting at Denver International Airport

Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Source: Northeastern University.

A local nuclear power activist, who expresses concern about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown at a Massachusetts nuclear power, watched his First Amendment claims against the Town of Rowley “melt down” late month.  A federal district court in Massachusetts entered judgment on the pleadings in favor of the town, finding it did not engage in viewpoint discrimination, retaliation, or selective enforcement.

Stephen Comley, a town resident, posted signs in public right-of-ways throughout the town pertaining to his concerns about safety at the Seabrook Power Plant.  In 2015, Comley appeared before the town’s governing body to demand that the town take action against the power plant.  Following Comley’s appearance before the town board, he noticed that his signs began disappearing from the public right-of-ways, which reportedly hosted several other signs relating to elections and other subjects.  He then brought First Amendment claims for viewpoint discrimination, retaliation, and selective enforcement. Continue Reading Massachusetts Town Prevails in Nuclear Power Protest Case