The advertisement that the Freethought Society wished to place on Lackawanna County buses. Source: ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In a decision last month, an atheist group lost its challenge to an advertising policy promulgated by the transit system for Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, COLTS, that prohibited, among other things, religious messages.  Following a trial, a federal district court found in favor of the transit agency, on the grounds that its advertising space was a limited public forum and the policy was viewpoint neutral.  The decision follows several recent decisions that have found transit advertising policies constitutional.

Beginning in 2012, the atheist group, the Freethought Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania, sought to place advertising on buses owned by COLTS.  The Society’s initial advertising attempt was blocked by COLTS on the ground that its advertisement was controversial, in violation of the agency’s advertising policy.  The transit agency rejected similar advertisements submitted in 2013 and 2014 as well, even after COLTS changed its advertising policy to more explicitly prohibit political or religious messages.
Continue Reading In Another Transit Advertising Case, Federal District Court Upholds “No Religion” Policy

Last December, we reported on a federal district court’s denial of a motion for preliminary injunction relating to the Archdiocese of Washington’s unsuccessful efforts to post Christmas-season advertising on transit vehicles owned and operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.  Unfortunately for the Archdiocese, Christmas did not come in July either.  Last week, the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the denial of preliminary injunctive relief.

The facts of the case are available on our post regarding the district court’s decision.

On appeal, the appellate court (which included as a panelist Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh) agreed with the district court.  First, the court agreed that the advertising space on WMATA transit vehicles constitutes a non-public forum, where the government can exercise greater control over content yet must adhere to requirements of viewpoint neutrality and reasonableness.  In so ruling, the D.C. Circuit joins a majority of federal appeals courts that have now ruled that transit advertising spaces are non-public fora.
Continue Reading No Christmas in July for Archdiocese of Washington; Appeals Court Affirms Denial of Preliminary Injunction

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.
Continue Reading Supreme Court to Minnesotans: Wear Your Political Buttons, Badges, and T-Shirts to the Polls

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

A Street Preacher (though not the one in this case) | by frankieleon, flickr. Used subject to reuse label.

The concrete pathways at the corner of University Boulevard and Hackberry Lane in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, may look and quack like

sidewalks, but as constitutional matter, the Eleventh Circuit considers them something less: an extension of the University of Alabama campus.  In a recent decision, that circuit concluded the sidewalks were not a “traditional public forum” within which the Constitution confines government control of speech and other demonstrations, but rather a “limited public forum” to which the University of Alabama could constitutionally control access. The practical result?  The unlicensed street preacher who sued ‘Bama won’t get a preliminary injunction against the university’s grounds-use policy.

The plaintiff preacher,
Continue Reading Can University of Alabama control preacher’s access to campus sidewalks? 11th Circuit: Roll Tide.

Last week, the Tenth Circuit vacated a preliminary injunction preventing Denver International Airport from enforcing much of its public protest policy.  We reported on that injunction after it issued and now return to discuss its reversal on appeal.  In short, the unanimous appellate panel concluded that the airport could reasonably require a seven-day permitting period for protests, even if that requirement quashed most spontaneous demonstrations.

Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal

A bit of background, though, before we get any further: after the Trump administration unveiled its so-called “Muslim Ban”  (more formally, but less memorably, titled Executive Order 13769) suspending nationals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, spontaneous protests broke out in airports nationwide.  Plaintiffs in this case joined in those protests at DIA, where
Continue Reading Tenth Circuit: No Constitutional Need for Speedier Protest Permitting at Denver International Airport

Does the First Amendment require a public transit system to run an ad alerting riders to the “Faces of Global Terrorism”?  No, concluded a federal district court last month.  The case, which remains on appeal, comprises the latest salvo in a years-long battle between the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a nonprofit specializing in creating and litigating advertisements decrying the “Islamization of America,” and King County Metro Transit (Metro), the Seattle area’s mass transportation system.

After AFDI submitted what Metro rejected as a false and misleading advertisement, and the Ninth Circuit refused to overturn a district court order denying AFDI’s request for a preliminary injunction, AFDI returned with a new version of its ad.  That latest iteration
Continue Reading First Amendment Still Doesn’t Require Seattle Transit System to Run “Faces of Global Terrorism” Ad

Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. Source: klydewarrenpark.org

Last month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a restriction on structures larger than four feet by four feet in a Dallas, Texas park did not constitute a violation of the First Amendment.  The plaintiff, an evangelical Christian who wished to spread his message in the park, was denied on his motion for a preliminary injunction.

Ricky Moore, the plaintiff, wished to use Klyde Warren Park in Dallas to share his religious message with others.  To do so, he uses a portable sketch board, which is four feet wide and six feet tall, on which he paints riddles.  The riddles are intended to attract people to stop by and ask him about them.  The park rules prohibit structures larger than four feet by four feet without a permit.  Beginning in 2013, Moore’s activities drew the attention of enforcement personnel at the park.  In 2015, he received a criminal trespass warning.  After the park’s regulators suggested that Moore could apply for a special event permit to erect his sketch board in the park, Moore sued the city on First Amendment grounds.
Continue Reading Restrictions on Structures in Dallas Park Upheld

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

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two opinions addressing separate free speech issues.  While neither decision related specifically to local government regulations, both hold some important lessons for local government practice, as we outline below.

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the Court struck down a North Carolina law making it a felony for registered sex offenders “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.”  Gerard Packingham, having previously been convicted of “taking indecent liberties with a child,” was cited for violating the law when he posted a statement on his Facebook page about a “positive experience in traffic court.”

At trial, Packingham filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the charge violated his First Amendment free speech rights.  The trial court denied Packingham’s motion, and he was subsequently convicted.  Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina struck down the law on First Amendment grounds, explaining that “the law is not narrowly tailored to serve the State’s legitimate interest in protecting minors from sexual abuse.”  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding the law constitutional “in all respects,” and explaining that the law was carefully tailored to prevent sex offenders from accessing “only those Web sites that allow them the opportunity to gather information about minors.”
Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Issues Rulings in Two First Amendment Cases

“Sexy cops” patrolling the Las Vegas Strip. Source: loweringthebar.net.

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

Last month, street performers in the Ninth Circuit got a bigger tip than anticipated when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Nevada federal district court’s order granting summary judgment to three Las Vegas police officers, where the police officers ticketed two street performers on the famous Las Vegas Strip.  In its ruling, the appeals court found that the street performers—who dressed up as “sexy cops” to take photos with tourists—could not constitutionally be required to obtain a business license for engaging in expressive activity and association.

Michele Santopietro is an actress turned street performer who occasionally dresses up as a “sexy cop” on the Las Vegas Strip.  In March of 2011, Santopietro and her colleague Lea Patrick performed as “sexy cops” on the Strip as they were approached by three individuals indicating a desire to take a photograph.  The “sexy cops” happily obliged.  Following the photograph, Patrick persistently reminded the three individuals that the “sexy cops” work for tips.  Unbeknownst to Santopietro and Patrick, the three individuals in question were real Las Vegas Metro police officers dressed down in street clothes.  Due to Patrick’s persistence and claim that the officer entered into a “verbal contract” to give a tip, the Metro police officers arrested the two women under Clark County Code § 6.56.030 which states: “It is unlawful for any person, in the unincorporated areas of the county to operate or conduct business as a temporary store, professional promoter or peddler, solicitor or canvasser without first having procured a license for the same.”
Continue Reading Las Vegas “Sexy Cops” Don’t Need a Business License, At Least For Now