A billboard company’s challenge to the Troy, Michigan sign variance standards–which we reported on three years ago–has now resulted in an appellate decision that has the potential to greatly change commercial speech regulation as we know it.  Two weeks ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s sign code was an unconstitutional prior restraint and was content-based in its regulation of temporary signs.  The most remarkable aspect of the decision, however, was the court’s conclusion that any content-based commercial sign regulation should now be subjected to strict scrutiny analysis, which is nearly always fatal to a sign regulation.

The Troy sign ordinance allows property owners to post one ground sign of up to 12 feet in height and not exceeding 100 square feet, plus one additional ground sign, so long as the second sign is set back 200 feet from a right-of-way, is no more than 25 feet tall, does not exceed 300 square feet in area, and is not less than 1,000 feet from any other sign exceeding 100 square feet.  International Outdoor sought to install 672-square-foot, double-sided advertising signs in Troy that did not meet the foregoing requirements and sought a variance.  The criteria used by the city’s appeals board were threefold:  “(1) the variance would not be contrary to the public interest or general purpose and intent of this Chapter; and (2) the variance does not adversely affect properties in the immediate vicinity of the proposed sign; and (3) the petitioner has a hardship or practical difficulty resulting from the unusual characteristics of the property that precludes reasonable use of the property.”  The board denied the variance for failure to meet the criteria.
Continue Reading In Billboard Company’s Challenge to a Michigan Sign Ordinance, the Sixth Circuit Finds That Content-Based Commercial Speech Regulations Are Now Subject to Strict Scrutiny

An Adams Outdoor billboard in Madison. Source: Madison.com.

This week, a federal district court in Wisconsin ruled that Adams Outdoor Advertising’s claims that the Madison sign ordinance is unconstitutional could not survive summary judgment.  The ruling in the city’s favor is further support for the proposition that Reed v. Town of Gilbert does not upset longstanding commercial speech doctrine.

The Madison sign ordinance generally prohibits billboard advertising in most areas of the city.  Where they are permitted, billboards are subject to strict regulation as to setback, height, sign area, and spacing between signs.  The city also operates an exchange program, whereby owners of signs that are removed due to redevelopment can “bank” their sign area and obtain a permit in another area of the city.  The city also prohibits digital signs.

Beginning in 2016, Adams Outdoor sought permits for billboards in the city.  It first sought to avail itself of the sign exchange program with respect to one of its signs, but the city determined that the sign was not eligible for the banking program.  Adams Outdoor then submitted 26 applications to the city in 2017 seeking to modify or replace existing billboards.  The city denied 25 of the 26 permits on the grounds that the sign ordinance did not permit the modifications in question.  Adams Outdoor appealed 22 of the denials to the city’s Urban Design Commission, while also filing a lawsuit in federal court.  After the filing of the lawsuit, the city adopted a variety of amendments to its sign ordinance, to ensure that the ordinance complied with Reed.
Continue Reading Billboard Company’s Challenge to Madison, Wisconsin Sign Code Fails

A marine mammal swims at Six Flags in Vallejo, California. Source: San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Vallejo, California’s requirement that a person obtain a permit before using a sound amplification is likely unconstitutional.  The court’s decision reverses the district court’s order denying the plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction, and allows the case to proceed to additional stages of litigation.

Joseph Cuviello is an animal rights activist in Vallejo who wished to protest alleged animal mistreatment at Six Flags Discovery Park, an amusement park.  Cuviello has been active in protesting Six Flags since 2006.  In 2014, Cuviello decided to begin protesting on a public sidewalk outside of the park, using a bullhorn.  Vallejo, however, requires a permit for the use of sound amplification devices, and the city imposes restrictions on the use of such devices.  Cuviello filed suit against the city, challenging the permit requirement as an unconstitutional prior restraint, and the ordinance as impermissibly vague and content based.  Cuviello eventually abandoned the latter arguments, and the court’s decision focused entirely on the prior restraint question.
Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Finds That Permit Requirement For Bullhorns Violates First Amendment

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

Photo Credit: Robert Coure-Baker. Used subject to creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In an effort to curb visual clutter and reduce litter, Chicago’s sign ordinance has, since 2007, prohibited posting “commercial advertising material” on city-owned property.  No longer, however.  Writing recently, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois struck

Last month, a federal district court in Pennsylvania found that a billboard company’s challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s highway advertising law sufficiently stated a claim for relief and could proceed to further stages of litigation.

Pennsylvania’s highway advertising law contains a general prohibition on sign structures within 500 feet of a highway interchange

Last week, a federal district court in Nevada ruled on the City of Reno’s motion to dismiss several claims brought against it by a billboard company and landowner relating to the placement of off-premises billboards in the city.

The plaintiffs in the case are a billboard company called Strict Scrutiny Media (which perhaps implies the type of judicial review that the company wanted, but did not get, in this case) and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Reno Lodge #14.  SSM obtained billboard leases at three sites owned by the Oddfellows, constructed signs on all three locations, and obtained permits for the construction of one of the signs.  In late 2016, the city informed SSM and Oddfellows that the permitted sign’s permit was invalid due to the fact that it was issued to a different sign operator, and also informed Oddfellows that two other signs that had been installed by SSM and Oddfellows were constructed without a permit in violation of the city’s code.  Oddfellows and SSM then challenged the city’s action, and also challenged the city’s ban on the erection of new, permanent off-premises signs and the city’s exemptions to permit requirements for certain temporary or permanent on-premises signs.
Continue Reading Court Allows First Amendment Claims to Move Forward in Reno Sign Code Case

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

In July, a federal court in Wisconsin granted a preliminary injunction to Candy Lab, the maker of the popular “Pokemon Go” game, after Milwaukee County required the company to obtain a permit in order for players of its games to play in the county’s parks.

In 2016, Candy Lab released Pokemon Go, which allows players to use smartphones with location-sensing technology and “augmented reality”—whereby the phone displays an image suggesting that the image is physically present in front of the user—to play the game in a particular geolocation.  The runaway success of the game meant that many public parks became popular with players, including Milwaukee County’s Lake Park.  In summer 2016, the county observed large numbers of people playing the game in the park, and reported increases in litter, trampling of grass and flowers, players staying past the park’s closing hours. The park additionally had inadequate bathrooms, unauthorized vending, parking problems, and traffic congestion as a result of the game.  The county responded with an ordinance prohibiting virtual- and augmented-reality games in the county’s parks, except with a permit.  In 2017, Candy Lab released another augmented-reality game, Texas Rope ‘Em, but refused to obtain a permit from the county.  Candy Lab then sued the county, claiming a violation of its free speech rights.
Continue Reading Court Grants Preliminary Injunction in Milwaukee “Texas Rope ‘Em” Case