The Gentleman’s Playground in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Source: Yelp

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

A few weeks ago, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s summary judgment order upholding Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s sexually-oriented business regulations against a First Amendment challenge by an exotic dance club known as “The Gentlemen’s Playground.”  As this is a professional blog, we will refrain from further commentary on the combination of the parties’ names, but invite our readers to conjure up whatever creative taglines come to mind.

American Entertainers has operated the club in Rocky Mount since 2002.  The city requires that all sexually oriented businesses obtain a license.  After discovering that The Gentlemen’s Playground was not licensed, the city sought to enforce its ordinance against the owner.  In response, American Entertainers challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  The district court granted summary judgment for the city.  On appeal the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.

American Entertainers asserted that the definition of “sexually oriented business” in the ordinance was overbroad, so as to encompass “conventional, mainstream arts and entertainment.”  The Fourth Circuit rejected the claim and found that the ordinance was adopted for a purpose unrelated to suppression of expression, i.e. to offset the deleterious consequences, like lower property values and increased rate of crime, that accompany exotic dance clubs.  The court further found that the licensing requirement materially advanced the city’s substantial interest.  According to the court, the licensing fee was an acceptable way for the city to counteract some of the administrative and enforcement burdens that exotic dance clubs bring to a city.  The court also found that the ordinance was narrowly tailored to this important interest, noting that American Entertainers offered no evidence that the license itself restricted free speech.

Additionally, American Entertainers challenged two of the license-denial provisions, including one that allowed the city’s police chief to deny a license if the business would not comply with “all applicable laws,” and another that prohibited any applicant under twenty one years old from obtaining a license to operate a sexually oriented business.  The appeals court held that the provision allowing denial for violation of applicable laws was an unconstitutional prior restraint.  It failed to limit the phrase “applicable laws” and was susceptible to the chief of police creating trivial reasons to deny a license.  Ultimately, the court remanded this issue to the district court to determine whether and to what extent this provision is severable from the rest of the ordinance.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the age restriction infringed upon equal protection and the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.  However, because the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not recognize age as a suspect class, the age restriction needs only to be rationally related to the city’s interest.  The court had no difficulty reasoning that because alcohol is typically served at exotic dance venues, the age restriction was rationally related to the city’s interest in ensuring the business owners of sexually oriented businesses are of legal drinking age.  Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of the Equal Protection challenge.

American Entertainers, L.L.C. v. City of Rocky Mount, 888 F.3d 707 (4th Cir. 2018).

The Ocean City boardwalk. Source: Bill Price III, from Wikimedia Commons.

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

Just in time for summer, the federal district court in Maryland has determined that the show must go on for a group of performance artists challenging an ordinance restricting public performance on the Ocean City boardwalk.  In Christ v. Ocean City, which we first reported on last year, a federal district judge concluded that Chapter 62, a new ordinance limiting performance to designated spaces at designated times, was mostly unconstitutional.

The Ocean City Boardwalk Task Force hoped Chapter 62 would survive scrutiny after a lengthy history of successful First Amendment challenges to prior regulations of speech on the boardwalk.  The Mayor and City Council charged the five-member Boardwalk Task Force to draft a new ordinance addressing the “issues that had plagued the Boardwalk” with respect to public safety, traffic congestion, and managing competing uses for limited space.  A cast of eleven street performers, including a puppeteer, stick balloon artist, magician, mime, portrait sketch artist, and musician, filed suit asserting that Chapter 62 violated the First Amendment.

Further background and details of the ordinance are detailed in our earlier post. Continue Reading A Mime, A Stick Balloon Artist, A Puppeteer, and Others Win in Ocean City Boardwalk Regulation Case

A Hustler Hollywood store in Fresno, California. Source: KSFN.

Last month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court’s denial of an adult business’s motion for preliminary injunction against Indianapolis.  The appeals court found that the business, Hustler Hollywood (HH), was unlikely to prevail on the merits of its as-applied First Amendment claim against the city.

In the case, HH entered into a ten-year lease on a property located in the city’s C-3 commercial zoning district.  It had a problem, though:  the C-3 district prohibits adult entertainment businesses, except with a variance.  When the plaintiff applied for sign and building permits with the city’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services, it was flagged as potentially disallowed by the zoning code.  While HH submitted various materials to try to convince city staff that it was not an adult entertainment business as defined by the code, staff determined that the use was not permitted in the C-3 district.  The plaintiff appealed to the city’s zoning appeals board, which voted 5-0 to affirm staff’s determination.

Instead of appealing the board’s decision to the Indiana state courts as provided by state statute, HH filed a federal First Amendment claim.  It sought preliminary injunctive relief, but the district court denied the motion.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found that the city’s zoning scheme was constitutional under the secondary effects doctrine.  The court held that the city’s regulation of sexually-oriented businesses, which allowed adult entertainment businesses in other zone districts (just not in the C-3 district), was properly aimed at preventing negative secondary effects of such establishments.  The court further found that HH had several alternative avenues for communication, including in several other zoning districts around the city—including the zoning district directly across the street from Hustler Hollywood’s property.  To the extent HH believed that city staff erred in classifying its business as an adult entertainment business, the Seventh Circuit advised that HH should have brought a state court appeal, as the classification of the business is not of First Amendment concern.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision in the case is yet another indicator that the secondary effects doctrine remains alive and well following Supreme Court cases that have walked back a more liberal content neutrality standard.

HH-Indianapolis, LLC v. Consolidated City of Indianapolis and Cnty. of Marion, 889 F.3d 432 (7th Cir. 2018).

In a case that we reported on earlier this year, a federal court in Pennsylvania has ruled that the failure to provide a deadline by which the government is required to make permitting decisions renders that state’s outdoor advertising law unconstitutional.  Nonetheless, PennDOT can remedy the problem by simply imposing internal processing timeframes.

The facts of the case can be found in our earlier post.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court found that the permitting provisions of the act violated the First Amendment.  Pennsylvania’s outdoor advertising law does not contain any deadlines by which the state must rule on a billboard permit application.  Under the Supreme Court’s rulings in City of Littleton v. Z.J. Gifts and Thomas v. Chicago Park District, a content based law must have a clear permitting timeframe in order to satisfy constitutional scrutiny.  The court determined that the Pennsylvania statute was content based, because it exempted “official signs” and “directional signs” from permitting.  As there was no timeframe required for the issuance of other permits, the court invalidated the permitting provisions of the statute.  Of course, PennDOT can remedy the constitutional violation by simply imposing internal permitting timeframes. Continue Reading Lack of Permitting Timeframes in Pennsylvania Billboard Law is Unconstitutional, But There’s An Easy Fix

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/

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).

New Mexico state fair. Source: Beate Sass, https://beatesass.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/the-new-mexico-state-fair/.

Green chile is undoubtedly a popular product at the New Mexico State Fair.  But can another “green” product—medicinal marijuana—be displayed at the state fair?  That question now rests with a federal district court.

New Mexico allows vendors of food, medical, and other products to display their products in booths at the annual state fair.  New Mexico Top Organics—Ultra Health, Inc., a medical cannabis company, sought to display its medical cannabis products at the fair, but New Mexico has a policy disallowing the display of drugs or drug paraphernalia at the fair.  In 2016 and 2017, the state prohibited Ultra Health from displaying its products, or images of its products, at the fair.  Ultra Health determined that, without images or examples of its products, it could not meaningfully participate in the fair, and it subsequently brought suit against several state fair officials, alleging violations of its free speech rights under the First Amendment. Continue Reading Land of Enchantment? Court Says Display of Marijuana is First Amendment-Protected, But Time Will Tell Whether State Fair Can Prohibit It

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

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

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently declared unconstitutional New York City’s ban on advertising in vehicles other than exempted taxis.  Under the city’s program, medallion and certain other taxis could display advertising, including seat-back television content and advertising, but other for-hire vehicles (“FHVs”), like those used for Lyft and Uber rideshare services could not do the same. Vugo, Inc., a seat-back video advertising company, challenged New York City’s regulations on the ground that their distinction between taxis and other FHVs violated the First Amendment.  On the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment, the district court agreed.

The court reviewed the regulations under Central Hudson’s four-part commercial speech test.  Under that test, if the speech regulated is neither false nor unlawful (a component not at issue in this case) and the government can show a substantial interest to justify its regulation, the court then considers whether regulation directly advances the government’s interest and whether it is narrowly drawn and not more extensive than necessary to serve the interest.

On the second prong, the court agreed with New York City that its interest in regulating vehicle advertisements as annoyances to passengers was substantial—but beyond that point the city’s arguments fared worse.  Most problematic for the court was the city’s justification for allowing advertising in taxis but not other FHVs: that the advertisements allowed operators to offset the cost of expensive ride- and fare-monitoring equipment the city required taxis to maintain.  That justification for the distinction shared no relationship to the city’s concerns about passenger annoyances, however.  That is, the advertisements were equally annoying irrespective of whether they helped offset other costs.  And because the taxi exemption still allowed advertising for more than 370,000 daily trips, the court doubted that the distinction between taxis and FHVs advanced the city’s other stated interest in aesthetics.

The court also found the exemption lacking with respect to Central Hudson’s fourth prong.  Though it noted that the commercial speech test does not require cities to employ the least restrictive means to achieve their goals, it concluded New York City’s outright prohibition on advertising in FHV was far too broad.

The court’s suggested alternative: just let passengers turn the ads off.

View the complete decision here: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/new-york/nysdce/1:2015cv08253/448867/63/