Earlier this month, a federal district court in Kansas awarded summary judgment to a plaintiff who claimed that the City of Williamsburg’s sign code violated the First Amendment.

The plaintiff, Eric Clark, placed several signs and other objects in a city right-of-way easement.  The city issued a notice of violation, which set off a series of interactions between the city’s code enforcement officer and Clark, and Clark issued several letters to the city claiming various violations of his civil rights.  Although the city desisted from further enforcement action, Clark, representing himself, filed a lawsuit against the city.
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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.
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Buttons like the one above would have been prohibited from polling places under the Minnesota law. Source: Ken Rudin’s Political Junkie.

Tea Partiers in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, as well as those hipsters who like to wear vintage political t-shirts (think “Nixon’s the One!” or “LBJ All the Way!”) on election day scored a big victory at the Supreme Court last week.  In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that a Minnesota law prohibiting individuals from wearing or displaying certain types of political attire was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.  The Minnesota law in question also prohibited displays of campaign materials within 100 feet of a polling place and the distribution of political materials to be worn at a polling place.

The law was challenged by a Tea Party group, and was upheld by lower courts.

Applying the public forum doctrine, the Supreme Court found in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky that the interior of a polling place constitutes a nonpublic forum.  In a nonpublic forum, speech regulations must be viewpoint neutral and reasonable in light of the purposes of the forum.  While the Court observed that Minnesota could constitutionally prohibit political attire, buttons, and other paraphernalia from the interior of a polling place, it found that the law in question failed the reasonableness standard.  The Court noted, for example, that the statute failed to define the term “political,” such that voters and those enforcing the law had no standards by which to determine what attire would pass muster.  While local polling places had been issued some guidance on the issue, the Court found that the guidance similarly lacked clarity regarding what constituted political speech.  The Court observed that other states, including California and Texas, had much clearer laws that narrowed the class of prohibited speech to that which advocates for or against a candidate or ballot measure appearing on the ballot.
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Signs on the pedestrian overpass in Campbell, Wisconsin. Source: Milwaukee Journal.

Late last week, in a case that involved made-for-TV shenanigans by a local police officer, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a town’s total ban on signs, flags, and banners within 100 feet of an interstate highway could survive with respect to overhead signs, but remanded the case for additional proceedings with respect to other parts of the ban.

Campbell, Wisconsin bans all signs, flags, and banners along interstate highways.  The town enacted its regulation after members of the community hung political protest banners containing messages commonly identified with the Tea Party on a pedestrian overpass over Interstate 90.

Following the enactment of the regulation, the local police began issuing citations to individuals displaying signs along the highway.  Some of the individual sign-posters took videos of the police issuing citations—including in response to the protesters’ display of American flags and other patriotic signs along the interstate highway.  Concerned about the videos, in an apparent attempt at vigilante justice, the local police chief posted the name and email address of one of the Tea Party sign-posters on same-sex dating and pornographic websites.  The police chief also took to local newspapers to accuse the man of failing to pay his taxes. 
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One of the signs in question in the Baldwin Park litigation. Source: The Legal Lens.

Last month, a federal district court in California ruled that the City of Baldwin Park’s sign ordinance was likely unconstitutional, even after the city amended the ordinance amidst a legal challenge.  The code allowed property owners additional signage and flag displays during certain times of the year, including election season and around holidays, respectively, and allowed businesses to display additional signage during promotional events.

The case originated when community members, including individuals and business owners, displayed signs alleging corruption by a local politician.  Baldwin Park enforced its code, which prohibited the signs in question.  The individuals and business owners filed a First Amendment challenge.  The city then amended its code, and the amended code is now in question.
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Sam Shaw and one of his signs. Source: Indiana Public Media.

Last week, a federal district court in Indiana ruled that the enforcement of the City of Bedford’s sign ordinance would not be enjoined, finding that the sign code was content neutral, supported by a significant governmental interest, and narrowly tailored.  The court’s denial of the preliminary injunction indicates that the ordinance is likely to survive constitutional scrutiny.
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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
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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. 
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Last month, a federal magistrate judge in New York recommended invalidating yet another sign code as content based in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  In February 2015, a resident of the Village of Perry, New York, Carolyn Grieve, posted signs complaining about the village’s spending policies.  Grieve received a notice of