One of Morris’s murals in New Orleans. Source: The Advocate.

In October, a federal district court in Louisiana denied the City of New Orleans’s motion to dismiss a claim filed by an individual challenging the city’s permit requirement for murals.

In late 2017, Neal Morris, an owner of residential and commercial properties in New Orleans, sought information from the city about the permit process and approval criteria for placing murals on his properties.  When he did not receive the requested information, Morris commissioned an artist to paint a mural on one of his properties.  The mural contained the infamous vulgar quote by President Donald Trump on the “Access Hollywood” tape, but replaced certain of the inflammatory words with images.  Morris was subsequently cited with a violation of the city’s historic district regulations.

In response, Morris filed suit against the city, alleging that the permitting scheme violated his First Amendment rights.  Specifically, he claimed that the permit scheme was an unconstitutional prior restraint and that it was a content based regulation.  He also claimed due process and equal protection violations.  The city subsequently amended its regulations, and the court denied the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction as moot.  When the city then moved to dismiss the case, the plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion.

The court first found that the plaintiff had standing to challenge the mural ordinance.  Since the city was attempting to interfere with Morris’s placement of murals, the court found that he had standing.  The court moved on to analyze whether the mural ordinance is content neutral or an unconstitutional prior restraint.  The mural ordinance requires murals to be submitted to the city for design review, in which the city considers the mural’s compatibility with surrounding properties and neighborhoods and determines whether the mural furthers public welfare.  Because these analyses require analysis of the mural’s content, the court found that the regulation was content based.  Based on that finding, the court relied upon Thomas v. Chicago Park District to determine that the law was also an unconstitutional prior restraint, because it allowed unbridled administrative discretion in the issuance or denial of mural permits.

The court went on to find that Morris also pled sufficient facts to state an unconstitutional vagueness claim under the Due Process Clause, but dismissed the plaintiff’s “class of one” claim under the Equal Protection Clause.

Morris v. City of New Orleans, No. 18-2624, 2018 WL 5084890 (E.D. La. Oct. 18, 2018).

A street performer on the Ocean City Boardwalk. Source: Maryland Coast Dispatch.

Late last month, a federal district court judge denied Ocean City, Maryland’s motion to dismiss First Amendment claims brought by a group of street performers.  Ocean City passed an ordinance that designated a limited number of performance spaces on the city’s famous Boardwalk, which are assigned by a lottery system every Monday morning.  Performers are required to be present at the Town Clerk’s office for the lottery drawing.  The performers are then assigned to designated performance spaces, which are limited in size, and performers are restricted from performing in the same space for more than two weeks at a time.  The city’s ordinance also precludes performers from using paint, dye, or ink, which prohibits them from doing face-painting or other such activities.

The group of street performers filed federal and state constitutional claims.  In its order, the court noted that the artistic performances of the street performers fall within the protection of the First Amendment, and that the limitations in the ordinance must constitute content neutral time, place, and manner restrictions.  The court denied the motion to dismiss on the grounds that the complaint alleged that the code provisions were broader than necessary to achieve the city’s asserted interests, which, given that the court cannot at the pleading stage make a determination regarding the regulations’ content neutrality and tailoring, was sufficient for the litigation to move forward.

Christ v. Mayor of Ocean City, No. WMN-15-3305, 2017 WL 1382315 (D. Md. Apr. 18, 2017)

In a case that we reported on last year, a federal district court in California granted summary judgment in favor of the City of San Diego in a case involving art murals.

Some of the facts of the case are reported in our prior post.  The San Diego sign code exempts from permitting “[p]ainted graphics that are murals, mosaics, or any type of graphic arts that are painted on a wall or fence and do not contain copy, advertising symbols, lettering, trademarks, or other references to the premises, products or services that are provided on the premises where the graphics are located or any other premises.”  Otherwise, all signs visible from the right of way are required to obtain a permit, and signs on city-controlled property must obtain a permit as well.  Messages on city-controlled property are limited to on-premises speech and “public interest” messages.  As we previously noted, the plaintiff, a mural company, was granted approval to place two wall murals in San Diego, but received a violation for the placement of a third mural.  The plaintiff believes that the annual Comic-Con event was given special treatment by the city, because certain signs posted around the city during the event were not issued citations. Continue Reading San Diego’s Motion for Summary Judgment Granted in Mural Case

Last week, a court in Missouri ruled that a village’s ordinance prohibiting commercial activity—including commercial photography—in a park was a constitutional restriction on speech.

The Village of Twin Oaks, Missouri had an ordinance that prohibited the use of a village park for commercial purposes.  The park was posted with signage that read:  “No commercial activity, including commercial photographers.”  The stated purpose for the village’s regulation was to ensure public safety and fair use of the park.  Josephine Havlak was a professional photographer who takes pictures for wedding and portrait purposes.  After Havlak filed suit claiming that the ordinance was a content based and unconstitutional restriction on speech, the village modified the ordinance to allow commercial photographers to use the park in exchange for a $100 permit fee. Continue Reading Photography May Be Protected Speech, But Village’s Restriction on Park Photography Stands

In Central Radio, Inc. v. City of Norfolk, a case that was caught up in the maelstrom surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in Reed, the Fourth Circuit reversed its previous decision upholding the Norfolk, Virginia sign code, finding that the code contained content based restrictions on speech.  In this case, which we reported on previously, the Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s petition for certiorari, vacated the Fourth Circuit’s opinion, and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration in light of Reed.  In reconsidering the case, the appellate court determined that, because the Norfolk sign code exempted governmental or religious flags and emblems while requiring permits for private and secular flags and emblems, and because the code contained an exemption for artwork that did not identify a product or service, the code was content based.  The court went on to find that the city’s asserted interests in traffic safety and aesthetic beautification were not compelling interests and that the code was not narrowly tailored, thus failing strict scrutiny.  More news on the case can be found here.

During the pendency of the case, Norfolk updated its sign code to comport with the holding of Reed.  The Fourth Circuit found that the case was not moot, yet the court did not weigh in on the constitutionality of the new code.

Cent. Radio, Inc. v. City of Norfolk, ___ F.3d ___, 2016 WL 360775