by Hannah Dankbar
Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns, Michigan
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, April 6, 2015
Planet Aid is a non-profit community development organization. Among its activities, the organization gathers donations of clothing and shoes using unattended, outdoor donation bins. Planet Aid takes these donations and gives them to other organizations around the world.
To establish the donation bins Planet Aid gets consent from property owners of private businesses to put the bin on their property. Planet Aid aims to have donation bins in convenient locations and have a representative of the organization collect the donations on a weekly basis. There is contact information for the representative on the bin to be used on an as-needed basis.
In December 2012 Planet Aid placed two donation bins in the City of St. Johns, Michigan. At the time, St. Johns had no regulation of charitable donation bins. In January 2013 the City sent Planet Aid a letter that read, “clothing donation containers have been found to create a nuisance as people leave boxes and other refuse around the containers.” Planet Aid was instructed to remove the bins by January 23. If they did not remove the bins, the City would. An attorney for Planet Aid asked the City Attorney if they had to be removed by the 23rd, or if they could wait until the City Council/planning commission enacted an ordinance against the bins. Planet Aid was told to remove the bins, and was also told it did not have standing to appeal the decision because it did not own property where the bins were located. The City moved the bins and moved them to a City facility where they were later picked up by Planet Aid.
In December 2013 City Council addressed the issue of charitable donation bins. The planning commission had made a recommendation of a “total prohibition” of such bins to the Council. At the Council meeting, the Mayor said other communities “had people dropping off their trash” at donation bins, although the Public Works Director responded that trash drop offs at the two bins had “very seldom” occurred.
Ordinance #618 was put in place. The substantive prohibition of the ordinance read:
No person, business or other entity shall place, use or allow the installation of a donation box within the City of St. Johns….A donation box that exists on the effective date of this ordinance shall not be subject to the prohibition contained herein.
The purpose statement of the ordinance read:
It is the intent of this section to prohibit donation boxes to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city by preventing blight, protecting property values and neighborhood integrity, avoiding the creation and maintenance of nuisances and ensuring the safe and sanitary maintenance of properties. Unattended donation boxes in the city may become an attractive nuisance for minors and/or criminal activity. It is also the intent of this section to preserve the aesthetics and character of the community by prohibiting the placement of donation boxes.
In February 2014 Planet Aid filed a complaint in district court claiming that the ordinance violated their First Amendment right of charitable solicitation and giving. They claimed that the ordinance is a content-based restriction and deserved strict scrutiny. The City claimed that the bins were advertisements, and therefore the ordinance is content-neutral. The District granted Planet Aid’s motion for a preliminary injunction pending trial, and the City appealed.
The US Supreme Court has held that speech regarding charitable giving and solicitation is a protected First Amendment activity, and has applied strict scrutiny to local ordinances that presume to regulate charitable giving activities. The Supreme Court has not addressed unattended donation bins, but the Fifth Circuit invalidated a Texas law that required such bins to make note of whether the donated items would be sold or not (National Federation of the Blind of Texas, Inc. v. Abbott). The Fifth Circuit stated that “public receptacles are not mere collection points for unwanted items, but are rather “silent solicitors and advocates for particular charitable causes.” The Sixth Circuit agreed with the reasoning of the Fifth, and noted that just because speech related to charitable giving may take the form of a bin does not mean it deserves less than strong constitutional protection.
Still, government regulations of protected speech only receive strict scrutiny if they are content-based. Government actions that merely regulates the time, place, and manner of protected speech are subject to an intermediate level of scrutiny. The US Supreme Court has analyzed the content-based versus content-neutral question in a number of ways: (1) whether the “government has adopted a regulation of speech because of a disagreement with the message it contains” (Hill v. Colorado); (2) whether the regulation hinders the “communicative impact of the [the speaker’s] expressive conduct.” (Texas v. Johnson); (3) whether the legislature’s predominant intent regarded the content of speech, rather than its’ secondary effects (Renton v. Playtime Theaters, Inc.); (4) whether the regulation is “based on the content of the speech” and not “applicable to all speech irrespective of content” (Consol. Edison Co., 447 U.S. at 536.). Under the guidance of these factors the Sixth Circuit determined that Ordinance #618 was content-based because it only banned outdoor bins that share a common topic – charitable giving – and not other outdoor bins or receptacles such as dumpsters. The concerns about overflowing items, trash dumping, and the risk of children climbing into such receptacles apply with equal force to dumpsters, receptacles at recycling centers, and public and private trash cans.
Because the ordinance was found to be content-based, it must stand up to strict scrutiny. The Sixth Circuit determined that there was sufficient evidence on this question to justify the district court’s determination that Planet Aid was likely to succeed on the merits (thereby justifying the preliminary injunction). For these reasons the Court affirmed the ruling from district court.