Earlier this fall, a federal district court in California entered an order dismissing a challenge to election sign regulations promulgated by the City of Coalinga, California.  Coalinga had a sign regulation that prohibited the display of election signs more than 60 days prior to and more than seven days after an election.  June Vera Sanchez and the Dolores Huerta Foundation sought to display political messages outside of the election season, and challenged the regulation on First Amendment grounds in an action filed in June 2018.  Following the filing of the lawsuit, in July 2018, the city amended its regulations to withdraw the challenged election sign regulation.  In August 2018, the city filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claim and that the action was moot. Continue Reading California City Successfully Moots Challenge By Withdrawing Election Sign Rules

A recent discovery dispute over Madison, Wisconsin’s revised sign codes recently provided a reminder regarding the evidence that is and isn’t relevant in a Free Speech challenge.  And let’s not bury the lede: a legislator’s private motivations for amending the sign code, the court concluded, don’t matter.

A only-in-Wisconsin billboard. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency, public domain

Adams Outdoor Advertising, a billboard operator, brought a facial and as-applied First Amendment challenge to Madison’s sign code after the city’s 2017 overhaul severely restricted off-site advertising.  The challenge itself is ongoing and Adams Outdoor contends that Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s test for content-based regulations—and not Central Hudson’s more permissive test for commercial speech regulations—should invalidate Madison’s new approach.

In the hopes of bolstering that contention, Adams Outdoor submitted discovery requests for information about the purpose of the 2017 amendment and, in particular, legislators’ personal motivations for adopting it.  The city refused to provide the information, invoking legislative privilege, and the dispute eventually reached the court. Continue Reading No Discovery on Legislators’ Personal Motivations for Sign Code Overhaul, says District Judge

Photo Credit: Robert Coure-Baker. Used subject to creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In an effort to curb visual clutter and reduce litter, Chicago’s sign ordinance has, since 2007, prohibited posting “commercial advertising material” on city-owned property.  No longer, however.  Writing recently, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois struck down that ban as unconstitutionally vague.

The ordinance’s challenger, RCP Productions, leveled two contentions, and while only one was convincing, that was enough to sink the ban.  RCP first argued that the sign ordinance unconstitutionally restricted commercial speech—a high bar to clear, and RCP fell short.  Chicago, the court concluded, had supplied ample reason to believe that commercial advertising accounted for the vast majority of signage and litter clogging the city’s public ways.  The city’s ban addressed those bugaboos without blocking other avenues for commercial speech, and thus didn’t raise a constitutional worry.  On that front at least.

The challenger’s second argument proved more successful: the court agreed that the term “commercial advertising material” lacked constitutionally required clarity.  Was a flyer advertising a $10 lunch event with a federal judge a commercial advertisement?  And what about the plaintiff’s own advertisement, promoting a non-profit film screening with a small admission fee?  Was that banned as well?  The ordinance offered no clear answers, and instead, Chicago officials had suggested multiple readings.  That proved fatal.   Chicago was not required to provide perfect clarity, the court reasoned, but the term “commercial advertising material” lay at the heart of the sign ordinance’s ban, and the city did not define that critical term.  Absent a clear definition, the court worried Chicago could lean on the ordinance’s ambiguity to prohibit disfavored messages.  The ordinance therefore fell to RCP’s challenge.

Link to full opinion here: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv11398/319533/93/

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri recently sided with a St. Louis-area locality of 1,500 best known as the home of the events behind The Exorcist, upholding its sign code against a motion for preliminary injunction.  The principle facts were these: the City of Bel-Nor code allows one double-faced stake-mounted yard sign per improved parcel.  Plaintiff Lawrence Willson placed three such signs in his yard, a window sign near his front door asking first responders to rescue his pets, and an “Irish for a Day” flag in his garden.  Bel-Nor cited him for violating the one-sign-per-yard ordinance, but did not take issue with the window sign or garden flag, although they too likely violated its sign code.

Lawrence, represented by the ACLU, sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin Bel-Nor from enforcing its entire sign code ordinance, arguing that the ordinance violated his Constitutional right to Free Speech.  The district court rejected the request with a rote application of First Amendment principles. Continue Reading Tiny Enclave’s One-Sign Rule Survives Initial Constitutional Challenge

Last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found that a billboard company’s challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s highway advertising law sufficiently stated a claim for relief and could proceed to further stages of litigation.

Pennsylvania’s highway advertising law contains a general prohibition on sign structures within 500 feet of a highway interchange or rest area, but the law exempts on-premises commercial and noncommercial signs (i.e. those advertising activities and products available on the property where the sign is located) and “official signs,” which are defined as those placed by public agencies.

Adams Outdoor Advertising, a billboard company, brought a First Amendment challenge, claiming that PennDOT, the state’s transportation department, had changed its interpretation of the highway advertising law, and had given varying directives regarding whether the 500-foot restriction applied to billboards on the opposite side of a highway from a rest area or interchange. Adams wanted to install a billboard opposite an interchange, but PennDOT had declined to issue a permit.  Adams contended that PennDOT’s changed interpretation of the statute made it unconstitutionally vague.  Adams further alleged that the lack of any timeframes in which PennDOT was required to act upon applications for sign permits also made the law unconstitutional.

The court first determined that it was not clear whether the law in question was content neutral, due in part to the exceptions to the permitting requirement.  The court left for a later day the determination of whether it was content neutral, reasoning that even a content neutral law would be required to satisfy intermediate scrutiny.  The court dismissed Adams’s vagueness claim, however, because it found that a person of ordinary intelligence could determine the meaning of the law from its face; the court was not persuaded that PennDOT’s changing interpretation of the statute rendered the law vague.  The court went on to find, however, that because the law was not clearly content neutral on its face, the lack of any timeframe for the issuance of sign permits would potentially create a constitutional defect in the statute.

The court additionally dismissed substantive due process and equal protection claims as well.

Adams Outdoor Advertising Limited Partnership v. Penn. Dept. of Transp., No. 5:17-cv-01253, 2018 WL 822450 (E.D. Penn. Feb. 9, 2018).

After years of extending the power of aldermanic privilege to oversized billboard approvals, the Chicago city council recently dispatched with an aspect of that practice, to the evident disappointment of at least one of its beneficiaries.  Under that longstanding policy, an alderman (Chicago’s term for a city council member) could recommend, and the council would order, that the city’s building commissioner issue or deny a permit for an oversized billboard proposed in the alderman’s ward—the requirements of the city’s zoning ordinance notwithstanding.  In an effort to create a more cohesive scheme, however, the city council recently eliminated the portion of that policy which had allowed it to order approval of oversized billboards conflicting with the zoning ordinance.

This change created something of a predicament for Image Media Advertising because it also repealed the council’s prior approval of several Image Media signs, and the city’s building commissioner refused to Continue Reading District Court Rejects (Most) Challenges to Change in Chicago Sign Regulation Practice

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

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 Topics in Planning and the First Amendment: Signs, Adult Businesses, Religious Land Uses, and More on December 14 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. EDT. Registration for individuals is $20 for PLD members and $45 for nonmembers. Registration for two or more people at one computer is $140.

Planning and zoning in areas involving rights protected under the First Amendment, including the rights to free speech and freedom of religion, can be tricky. This webinar will review several areas in which planners interact with the First Amendment, including in the areas of signs, religious land uses, adult businesses, and even some other interesting areas such as the regulation of gun shops, tattoo parlors, public monuments, and other topics. Presenters will poll the audience at the beginning of the webinar to determine specific topics in which attendees are interested, and will tailor the presentation to attendees’ interests.

Speakers include Daniel Bolin of Ancel Glink, Brian Connolly of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti, P.C., and Evan Seeman of Robinson & Cole LLP.

Register here

Last week, a federal district court in Nevada ruled on the City of Reno’s motion to dismiss several claims brought against it by a billboard company and landowner relating to the placement of off-premises billboards in the city.

The plaintiffs in the case are a billboard company called Strict Scrutiny Media (which perhaps implies the type of judicial review that the company wanted, but did not get, in this case) and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Reno Lodge #14.  SSM obtained billboard leases at three sites owned by the Oddfellows, constructed signs on all three locations, and obtained permits for the construction of one of the signs.  In late 2016, the city informed SSM and Oddfellows that the permitted sign’s permit was invalid due to the fact that it was issued to a different sign operator, and also informed Oddfellows that two other signs that had been installed by SSM and Oddfellows were constructed without a permit in violation of the city’s code.  Oddfellows and SSM then challenged the city’s action, and also challenged the city’s ban on the erection of new, permanent off-premises signs and the city’s exemptions to permit requirements for certain temporary or permanent on-premises signs. Continue Reading Court Allows First Amendment Claims to Move Forward in Reno Sign Code Case

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld San Francisco’s prohibition on new off-site commercial billboards, rejecting a First Amendment claim to the contrary made by a billboard company.  The case reaffirms the distinction between commercial and noncommercial speech regulation under the First Amendment, and limits the scope of Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Since 2002, San Francisco has prohibited the erection of new off-site billboards—which advertise products or services not available on the property where the billboards are located—while allowing new on-site business signs.  The prohibition amounts to an effective ban on new billboards in San Francisco, although billboards that predated the ban are allowed to remain in place.  The plaintiff, Contest Promotions, LLC, is a billboard company that challenged San Francisco’s regulation under the First Amendment.  The district court for the Northern District of California granted a motion to dismiss filed by the City and County of San Francisco. Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Allows San Francisco’s Billboard Ban to Stand