Photo by Peter Kaminski, used pursuant to Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Fewer than six months after it was enacted as an “emergency” measure, a Cincinnati ordinance singling out billboards for special taxes has succumbed to a constitutional challenge. The ordinance, which met legal headwinds from the start, transparently aimed to make life miserable for the city’s billboard operators and consisted of two primary components: (1) a special tax on revenues from billboard advertising and (2) a hush provision preventing those operators from telling advertisers about the tax.  An Ohio judge wasted little time in finding both provisions unconstitutional and Continue Reading Cincinnati “Billboard Tax” Found Unconstitutional Just Months After Enactment

Ted Pelkey’s middle finger to the Town of Westford. Source: boston.com.

Fortunately for those of us in the practice of First Amendment-related law, expressive conduct can be wildly entertaining.  And in Westford, Vermont, a local land use dispute has turned into a full-blown First Amendment fiasco.

Apparently operating on the old premise of “I’m from Vermont, I do what I want,” Ted Pelkey, a resident of Westford, decided to pursue a creative approach to expressing his First Amendment rights by erecting a decorative, 16-foot-tall, 700-pound wooden statue on his property.  That statute was, however, of a middle finger.  The statue, aimed directly at the local town hall, was erected in response to the Town’s denial of Pelkey’s application to construct a garage on his property.

While the particulars of the story can be found here, it appears that Westford’s sign regulations do not prohibit Pelkey’s statue.  The Westford sign code is contained in Section 326 of the Town’s Land Use and Development Regulations.  Pelkey’s middle finger meets the height and size limits for signs, and it may even be exempt from regulation as a “residential decorative sign.”  Although some might question whether the town should allow the sign, Supreme Court case law going back 50 years tells us that a middle finger–and the message it entails–may not be banned because it offends some community members.  So it seems as though Westford will have difficulty requiring Pelkey to remove his “decorative sign.”

Merry (expletive) Christmas, Westford!

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

Donald Burns’s current home in Palm Beach. Source: curbed.com.

Earlier this year, after a telecom millionaire with a checkered past challenged the Town of Palm Beach, Florida’s architectural review ordinance on First Amendment grounds, a federal magistrate judge in Florida issued a report and recommendation finding that the house proposed by the applicant was not entitled to First Amendment protection.  The court then entered summary judgment in favor of the town.

Donald Burns sought to construct a new, modern home in a neighborhood otherwise characterized by more traditional architecture.  He filed an application in 2014 to demolish his existing home and construct the new house.  His self-declared intent was to distinguish himself from his neighbors and to communicate modernist design elements to the community.  Neighbors opposed the project.  After reviewing several iterations of the proposed design, the town’s Architectural Commission denied Burns’s application in 2016.  Burns then filed suit, alleging violations of the First Amendment as well as claims under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court first iterated that it was the plaintiff’s burden to establish that the activity in question was expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.  The court considered the Eleventh Circuit’s two-part test for determining whether conduct receives First Amendment protection, which requires analyzing whether the actor intends to communicate a message and whether there is a “great likelihood” that a reasonable viewer would understand the conduct is communicative.  The court also considered case law on the distinction between commercial merchandise and expressive products.  The court noted that only two prior cases had addressed questions of whether architecture constituted protected speech:  a 2004 federal district court case in Nevada held that residential architecture was not protected, while a 1992 Washington case found that religious architecture was sufficiently expressive so as to receive First Amendment protection.

Applying the test typically applied to determine whether merchandise is expressive, the court found that Burns’s proposed home was not expressive conduct deserving of First Amendment protection.  The house, in the court’s eyes, had a predominantly non-expressive purpose:  it was intended for residence by an individual or family.  Additionally, the court found that it was unlikely that a reasonable person would view the house as expressive conduct.  Accordingly, the court declined to review the architectural review ordinance under the First Amendment.

The district court adopted the magistrate’s report and recommendation in late September.  The case is now on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.  This case is of particular interest to First Amendment observers, as cases involving questions of whether architecture is protected under the First Amendment are few and far between.

Burns v. Town of Palm Beach, No. 17-CV-81152, 2018 WL 4868710 (S.D. Fla. Jul. 13, 2018).

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).

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

Under Lexington’s ordinance, newspapers cannot be delivered to residential driveways. Image source: CBS San Francisco.

In a case that we previously reported on last winter, a federal district court in Kentucky ruled last month that Lexington’s law restricting the locations where newspapers may be delivered meets intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment.  Lexington’s ordinance requires that newspapers be delivered on porches, attached to doors, placed in mail slots, left in distribution boxes, or personally delivered.

The facts of the case can be found in our January 2018 post on the case of Lexington H-L Services, Inc. v. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.  After the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s entry of a preliminary injunction in the case, the parties proceeded to summary judgment briefing on the understanding that there were no genuine disputes as to material fact.

In ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court first found that the restriction on the locations where newspaper can be delivered is content neutral:  the regulation is not dependent upon the content of the newspaper, but simply identifies the locations on private property where a newspaper may be delivered.  Moreover, the court observed that the city’s goals in reducing litter, visual blight, and public safety were content neutral in purpose.  The court went on to find that the restrictions on delivery were narrowly tailored to these goals. Continue Reading On Summary Judgment, District Court Upholds Lexington Newspaper-Distribution Law

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

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

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