by Kaitlin Heinen
PHN Motors, LLC v. Medina Township
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 4, 2012)
PHN Motors et al. in northeastern Ohio filed a complaint that Medina Township violated their First Amendment right to free expression, their Fifth Amendment rights under the Due Process clause, and their Fourteenth Amendment rights under the Equal Protection Clause. The complaint arose from the interpretation and enforcement of Medina Township Zoning Resolution (MTZR) § 603E, which prohibited PHN Motors from displaying inflatable devices at their car dealership in a commercial district of Medina Township.
PHN Motors displayed 27 inflatables owned and rented by Scherba Industries, Inc. and has been cited several times by the Medina Township Zoning Inspector in violation of MTZR § 603E as a result. PHN Motors claimed that MTZR § 603E is unconstitutionally vague and infringes upon their First Amendment free speech rights. They also alleged that the regulation was “unevenly” enforced because it was only sometimes enforced against PHN Motors and because it was enforced unequally between commercial and residential districts.
The district court ruled in favor of Medina Township on all claims, so PHN Motors appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court. They challenged the district court’s dismissal of its First Amendment claims, its finding that MTZR § 603E is not unconstitutionally vague thus not violating any due process rights, and its conclusion that Medina Township’s enforcement of MTZR § 603E does not violate any equal protection rights.
In regards to their First Amendment claim, PHN Motors argued that MTZR § 603E consists of a content-based regulation of both commercial and non-commercial speech, which violates the protections for free speech under the First Amendment. To the contrary, Medina Township argues that the regulation is content-neutral, and that PHN Motors’ speech is only commercial in nature. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court found the MTZR § 603E is a content-neutral restriction upon speech. More specifically, MTZR § 603E prohibits certain elements the may be added to signs in Medina Township, such as “elements which revolve, rotate, whirl, spin, or otherwise make use of motion to attract attention” as well as signs that “contain or consist of flags, banners, posters, pennants, ribbons, streamers, spinners, balloons, and/or any inflatable devices, search light, or other similar moving devices.” Medina Township’s purpose behind the regulation is for an improvement in the aesthetics of the township’s commercial areas and to minimize motorist distractions that can potentially be a safety hazard for passing traffic. The 6th circuit court found that the regulation does not, on its face, regulate speech based upon its content. Additionally, the free speech in question is commercial in nature, which is expressly for the furtherance of economic interests. Even though PHN Motors counter-argues that many of the inflatables displayed depict holiday characters, the court found that they are used nonetheless as a brand-recognition tool, with the intent of attracting business. Commercial speech is provided a lesser protection by the Constitution, for which intermediate scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review to be applied. Intermediate scrutiny requires that the government restriction on speech be narrowly tailored to further a substantial governmental interest. Aesthetics and safety both can be considered substantial governmental interests. In regards to aesthetics, Medina Township has expressed a substantial need to clean up the appearance of its commercial areas. As for safety, minimizing distractions for passing motorists is also substantial. The objectives of MTZR § 603E are “reasonable” and “not more extensive than necessary.” So the regulation is a reasonable means to achieve the ends of improved aesthetics and increases motorist safety. A ban on inflatables is not more extensive than necessary to advance these interests then. In conclusion, no First Amendment violations occurred.
Addressing whether MTZR § 603E is unconstitutionally vague, the 6th circuit court began with the presumption that local zoning ordinances are valid and applied the standard of whether or not a person of ordinary intelligence would be able to determine what conduct is regulated or prohibited. PHN Motors argues that MTZR § 603E implies that movement is necessary to prohibit the use of inflatables, and that the enforcement of this regulation is inconsistent because it is left solely to the Zoning Inspector, who is unsupervised and enforcement is left to her discretion. The 6th circuit court ruled that the regulation was not vague, confusing, ambiguous, or inconsistent. Rather, the legislative intent behind the regulation was clear in regards to its ban on inflatables, the enforcement of the regulation does not violate PHN Motors’ due process rights, and a person of ordinary intelligence would know that inflatables are prohibited by the plain language used in the regulation. Considering the multiple references to a ban on devices that employ movement and “as inflatables of the type displayed by BDK are soft and often move in even the slightest breeze,” it can reasonably be concluded that all inflatables are banned. As for the Zoning Inspector, she and Medina Township have consistently upheld that inflatables are banned and her enforcement of this is overseen by the Board of Zoning Appeals. All in all, the court concluded that MTZR § 603E is not unconsitutionally vague.
Lastly, the court addressed PHN Motors’ Equal Protection claim in regards to the enforcement of the ban in commercial areas, but not residential. The court found that PHN Motors did not provide adequate evidence that property residing in residential districts is similarly situated to property residing in commercial districts. Medina Township, however, showed that property zoned for residential use is different than property zoned for commercial use in that residential districts draw significantly less traffic compared to commercial districts and that commercial districts are visitors’ first impression of the town. As a result, Medina Township has a greater interest in regulating the aesthetics and safety of these areas. PHN Motors also failed to show that the differential treatment lacks a rational connection to a legitimate government interest. The Zoning Inspector even testified that she does not enforce the inflatable ban in residential areas because MTZR § 603E does prohibit them there, since they are not for purposes of advertisement on residential property. The court concluded that no Equal Protection violations happened.
The ruling of the district court was affirmed.