The mural at the Lonsome Dove. Source: Bismarck Tribune.

This blog post was authored by Alexandra Haggarty, a summer clerk with Otten Johnson.  Alex is a rising 3L at the University of Colorado Law School.

A federal judge in North Dakota recently granted a temporary restraining order to enjoin the City of Mandan from enforcing a content-based ordinance regulating murals and signs.

The ordinance requires building owners to obtain a permit before displaying a sign or figurative wall mural.  A commission reviewing applications makes decisions based on guidelines and regulations, including those prohibiting murals that are commercial, have words as a dominant feature of the art, have political messages, or are on the front of the building.

The Lonesome Dove, a saloon that’s been a fixture on a main road for twenty-eight years, had until recently only decorated its exterior with beer ads.  Most recently, it had a Coors Light logo painted on the front wall.  Although the saloon never sought a permit for the logo, it was never cited for violation.  Seeking to reinvigorate its exterior, the saloon – not knowing it needed a permit – painted a 208 square-foot Western-themed “Lonesome Dove” mural on the front of the building in 2018. 
Continue Reading

A recent discovery dispute over Madison, Wisconsin’s revised sign codes recently provided a reminder regarding the evidence that is and isn’t relevant in a Free Speech challenge.  And let’s not bury the lede: a legislator’s private motivations for amending the sign code, the court concluded, don’t matter.

A only-in-Wisconsin billboard. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency, public domain

Adams Outdoor Advertising, a billboard operator, brought a facial and as-applied First Amendment challenge to Madison’s sign code after the city’s 2017 overhaul severely restricted off-site advertising.  The challenge itself is ongoing and Adams Outdoor contends that Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s test for content-based regulations—and not Central Hudson’s more permissive test for commercial speech regulations—should invalidate Madison’s new approach.

In the hopes of bolstering that contention, Adams Outdoor submitted discovery requests for information about the purpose of the 2017 amendment and, in particular, legislators’ personal motivations for adopting it.  The city refused to provide the information, invoking legislative privilege, and the dispute eventually reached the court.
Continue Reading

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

After years of extending the power of aldermanic privilege to oversized billboard approvals, the Chicago city council recently dispatched with an aspect of that practice, to the evident disappointment of at least one of its beneficiaries.  Under that longstanding policy, an alderman (Chicago’s term for a city council member) could recommend, and the council would order, that the city’s building commissioner issue or deny a permit for an oversized billboard proposed in the alderman’s ward—the requirements of the city’s zoning ordinance notwithstanding.  In an effort to create a more cohesive scheme, however, the city council recently eliminated the portion of that policy which had allowed it to order approval of oversized billboards conflicting with the zoning ordinance.

This change created something of a predicament for Image Media Advertising because it also repealed the council’s prior approval of several Image Media signs, and the city’s building commissioner refused to
Continue Reading

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. 
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

One of International Outdoor’s billboards in the Detroit area. Source: International Outdoor.

Late last month, a federal court in Michigan granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss First Amendment claims filed by a billboard company, International Outdoor, against the City of Troy.  The billboard company claimed that Troy’s sign ordinance was content based and unconstitutional, and that it imposed an unconstitutional prior restraint.  The city moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims, and further argued that the billboard company lacked standing to bring the claims.

The court first reviewed the city’s challenge to International Outdoor’s standing, which asserted that International Outdoor failed to plead redressability.  In a short response, the court held that, because the challenge was a facial challenge to the entire sign ordinance, if the court were to strike down the entire ordinance, the plaintiff’s injury would be redressed.
Continue Reading

The proposed billboard in this case was over three times the maximum sign area permitted by the City's sign code.
The proposed billboard in this case was over three times the maximum sign area permitted by the City’s sign code.

In a recent decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, an applicant challenged a provision that gave the board of zoning appeals (BZA) discretion to approve signs that do not comply with the sign ordinance. The applicant, who had submitted an application for a sign that did not comply with the sign ordinance, brought an appeal to the BZA in accordance with a provision that said the BZA may grant a special permit for signs that do not otherwise comply only if the proposed sign meets certain specific standards. Those standards generally required that the sign be consistent with the purpose and intent of the sign code, be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, and not be detrimental to the public safety or welfare or any adjacent land use, but reserved the discretion to grant the special permit to the BZA. The applicant’s facial challenge alleged that the discretion to grant the special permit constituted a prior restraint that “has the potential for becoming a means of suppressing a particular point of view.” The court disagreed, noting that the applicant could have received a permit for a billboard that met the sign code without applying for a special permit (and thus being subject to the BZA’s discretion), and moreover that the discretion, absent any evidence of an unconstitutional application, was sufficiently limited by the requirement that a proposed sign meet the specifically enumerated standards for approval.
Continue Reading

For those wading through the sign regulation muddle post Reed v. Town of Gilbert, check out my latest article in The Urban Lawyer, Sign Regulation After Reed: Suggestions for Coping with Legal Uncertainty.  Co-authored with Professor Alan Weinstein of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, the article provides practical advice to local government planners