Last week, a federal district court in Massachusetts accepted a nude dancing establishment’s argument that the City of Chelsea violated the First Amendment in denying a building permit for renovations to the business’s premises.  In so doing, the court struck down the city’s adult business zoning regulations and directed the city to treat the establishment under other use classifications contained in the code.

Chelsea’s zoning code provides for several zoning districts, including industrial, highway business, shopping center, and retail commercial business districts.  The code allows for an “art use”, defined as “the creation, manufacture or assemblage of visual art, including two or three dimensional works of fine art or craft, or other fine art objects created, manufactured or assembled for the purpose of sale, display, commission, consignment or trade by artists or artisans; or classes held for art instruction,” in the industrial district, and by special permit in the retail business and highway business districts.  The code also allows for theater uses in the retail and shopping center districts, and adult entertainment uses in the highway commercial and shopping center districts.  Adult entertainment uses and theater uses are not allowed in the industrial district.
Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Strikes Down Local Adult Business Regulations

This post was originally authored by Evan Seeman and Karla Chafee of Robinson + Cole, LLP.  Any views reflected in this post are the views of the original authors. 

hillside-sign

Thou shall have the right to an electronic sign?  Apparently not.  Just over a year ago, Hillside Baptist Church and Signs for Jesus (together, Plaintiffs or Church) filed a complaint in the District Court for New Hampshire, seeking a declaration that the Town of Pembroke’s (the Town) sign ordinance is unconstitutional both facially and as applied to the Plaintiffs.  The complaint alleged that the Town’s Ordinance banning the use of electronic signs in all but the Town’s commercial zoning district “restricts how the Church may proclaim a daily Biblical message while not restricting the medium of communicating state, municipal or school messages.”  Our post regarding the complaint is available here.

The Plaintiffs claimed that the Town’s limitation on electronic signs in all zones but the commercial zone, and the Town’s denial of the Church’s sign application violated its rights to Free Speech, Free Exercise of Religion, and Equal Protection, as well as RLUIPA’s substantial burden and equal terms provisions.
Continue Reading RLUIPA Defense: Signs 4 JC Shown the Light by NH District Court

Last week, another local sign code was found content based and unconstitutional, this time in North Redington Beach, Florida.

A local business, Sweet Sage Café, was issued notices of violation for several alleged violations of the town’s sign code.  In response, the café filed First Amendment claims against the town, which is a small coastal community along the Gulf of Mexico.  The town’s sign code had several features of sign codes that are commonly understood to be unconstitutional post-Reed:

  • The town’s definition of “sign” had several arguably content based elements, including “Drawings of articles for sale on the premises that is related to the business and/or is intended to advertise or inform, rather than being merely aesthetic, shall be classified as a sign under this Chapter. The term does not include an official traffic control sign, official marker, national or state flags permitted by this Chapter, athletic scoreboards, or the official announcements or signs of government.”
  • The town exempted several types of signs from permitting on the basis of their message, including “national flags shown in accordance with the standards of the Adjutant General,” warning signs, murals, holiday decorations, memorial signs or tablets, garage sale signs, real estate open house signs, political campaign signs, “no trespassing” signs, and others.

The town issued notices of violation to Sweet Sage Café for a series of flip-flop sandal footprint decals
Continue Reading Florida Town’s Sign Code Found to Violate First Amendment

Wagner’s sign in Garfield Heights. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Earlier this month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Ohio district court’s decision to permanently enjoin the enforcement of the City of Garfield Heights’s sign code.  The court found that the sign code’s restriction of “political signs” to six square feet was content based and unconstitutional.

The case began in September 2011, when local resident Frank Wagner wanted to protest a local councilwoman’s support of traffic cameras and a waste disposal tax.  Wagner placed a sixteen-square foot sign in his front yard that called out the councilwoman. 
Continue Reading Ohio City Loses Political Sign Battle

A tattered campaign sign on a D.C. lamppost. Source: Washington Times.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined that Washington, D.C.’s regulation of event-based signage on public lampposts is not content based.  On its face, the court’s decision appears to conflict with one of the central holdings of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.  But the lengthy, well-written opinion made significant efforts to distinguish the case from Reed, and the D.C. Circuit’s decision potentially offers new avenues for local governments to control proliferations of signage.

Washington, D.C. has long regulated signage on public lampposts.
Continue Reading In Apparent Departure From Reed, D.C. Circuit Says Event-Related Sign Restrictions Are Not Content-Based

A photo of the “Temple Burn” engaged in by Catharsis on the Mall in 2015. Source: catharsisonthemall.com.

Last month, the federal district court in Washington, D.C. denied a request for a preliminary injunction against the National Park Service’s enforcement of its bonfire restrictions on the National Mall.  A group sought to host a demonstration on the Mall that would have attracted more than 4,000 participants and involved the burning of a wooden “Temple” as a symbol of support for additional protections and services for veterans.  The National Park Service denied the group’s request for a permit based on newly-enacted rules regarding bonfires on the Mall, which limited the size of bonfires for safety purposes.  Prior regulations allowed bonfires with a National Park Service permit. 
Continue Reading No Preliminary Injunction in National Mall Bonfire Case

The Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. Source: Vegas Experience.

Fremont Street in Las Vegas is one of the city’s major tourist attractions.  It is operated and managed by a private concessionaire, Fremont Street Experience, LLC.  The city government regulates street performances on Fremont Street, controlling the areas in which street performances take place, limiting noise made by street performers, designating times in which street performances are allowed, establishing a lottery system to allocate times and locations among street performers (25 to 38 performers, depending on the time of the day), and requiring that street performers obtain a city license.  In a prior case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found Fremont Street to be a traditional public forum.


Continue Reading Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Las Vegas Mall Case

Late last month, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision finding that a New Hampshire law prohibiting digital photography of completed election ballots violated the First Amendment.  In the case of Rideout v. Gardner, the court found that the law was not narrowly tailored to a significant governmental interest, and therefore failed intermediate scrutiny review.

The New Hampshire law in question was commonly referred to as the “ballot selfie” law, since it prohibited individuals from taking cell phone photographs of themselves with their completed ballots.  The law was a 21st century update of an earlier state law dating back to the late 1800s
Continue Reading First Circuit Rejects New Hampshire “Ballot Selfie” Law