ZBA’s denial of variance for billboard did not constitute unlawful prior restraint

by Rachel Greifenkamp

International Outdoor, Inc. v City of Roseville
(Michigan Court of Appeals, May 1, 2014)

In the City of Roseville, Michigan International Outdoor, Inc. (IO) applied to erect a billboard 70 feet high, 672 square feet total, 365 feet from property that was zoned residential. Due to regulations on billboards within city limits, the Building Department denied the application. IO appealed the decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) who also denied the application. IO then appealed to the circuit court, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinances.  After the circuit court also found in favor of the City, IO appealed to the State of Michigan Court of Appeals.

IO argued that the ordinances of the City of Roseville constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint because the city has not applied the stated objective standards for billboards found in the ordinance in a consistent manner. It maintained that the ZBA has ignored or waived those objective standards on an ad hoc basis, and relies solely on subjective criteria such as “in harmony with the general purpose of the sign ordinance,” “injurious to the neighborhood,” and “detrimental to the public welfare” when denying billboard applications.  These criteria, IO argued, have been found in previous court cases to be insufficiently precise and therefore unconstitutional prior restraint. The city countered that the circuit court was correct when it found the regulations on their face to be narrow, objective, and definite,  and that IO’s proposed billboard did not meet the standards of those regulations.

After noting that IO’s challenge was to the application of the ordinances by the ZBA, the court noted the key holdings in previous prior restraint cases:

  • A licensing scheme that gives public officials the power to deny use of a forum in advance of actual expression is a prior restraint on First Amendment liberties.
  • Any system of prior restraints on expression bears a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.
  • A law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license must contain narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority.
  • Moreover, a licensing law that places “unbridled discretion in the hands of a government official or agency constitutes a prior restraint and may result in censorship.

Because IO could not meet the strict application of the narrow, objective, and definite terms of the city’s Sign Ordinance, it was required to present evidence that a variance from the ordinance was necessary; i.e., that a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship existed. The record reflected that the ZBA applied this test in determining that a variance could not be granted.  the application of the test meant that the ZBA was not operating with unbridled discretion when it denied the variance.

Additionally, IO argued that commercial speech is protected under the First Amendment.  As such, any restriction or regulation must be advance a substantial government interest, and  the ordinance must be narrowly tailored to meet that interest. IO does not believe that it is narrowly tailored because the ZBA has the discretion to grant one request for a billboard otherwise restricted by the ordinance, but deny others. The court rejected this argument, noting that the stated purpose of the ordinance – “to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the City of Roseville, including but not limited to defining and regulating signs in order to promote aesthetics, to avoid danger from sign collapse and to regulate sign materials, avoid traffic hazards from sign locations and size, avoid visual blight and provide for the reasonable and orderly use of signs” – is a substantial governmental interest.  The court simply stated that IO provided “no relevant legal authority or factual support for its claim.

The circuit court’s decision in favor of the City of Roseville was affirmed.

US Supreme Court strikes down buffer zones around MA abortion clinics

by Gary Taylor

McCullen v. Coakley
(US Supreme Court, June 26, 2014)

In 2007, Massachusetts amended its Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act to make it a crime to knowingly stand on a public way or sidewalk within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any “reproductive health care facility,” defined as “a place, other than within or upon the grounds of a hospital, where abortions are offered or performed.” the Act exempted four classes of individuals, including “employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment.”  Another provision of the Act makes it a crime for the knowing obstruction of access to a reproductive health care facility. McCullen and others who attempt to engage women approaching Massachusetts abortion clinics in “sidewalk counseling” – offering information about alternatives to abortion and help in pursuing those options – raised First Amendment claims, arguing that the buffer zone displaced them from their positions outside clinics which considerably hampered their counseling efforts.  Their attempts to communicate with patients are further hampered by clinic escorts who accompany arriving patients through the buffer zones to the clinic entrances.

The US Supreme Court held that the Act violates the First Amendment.  First the Court noted that “public ways” and “sidewalks” are traditional public fora which have traditionally been open for speech activities.  The government’s ability to regulated speech in traditional public fora is very limited, where traditional time, place and manner restrictions on speech are allowed only if the restrictions (1) are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, (2) are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and  leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.

Content based.  The Court determined that the restrictions were neither content nor viewpoint based.  Just because the buffer zones were drawn specifically around abortion clinics does not mean the restriction was directed, on its face, at a specific message.  It was adopted in response to a record of crowding, obstruction and even violence outside abortion clinics that was not present in other locations.  Violation of the Act does not depend on what individuals say, but rather where they say it.  The Act’s purposes include protecting public health, safety and welfare, and unobstructed public use of streets and sidewalks.  Furthermore, the exemption for clinic employees was not an attempt to favor one viewpoint over another, but rather was necessary to allow them to enter and exit the clinics in the performance of their duties.

Narrowly tailored.  The Court determined that the buffer zone restriction was not narrowly tailored, in that it burdened substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.  While it served the interest in public safety on sidewalks, it deprived the petitioners of their two primary methods of communicating their message: close personal conversations with arriving patients and distribution of literature.  Those forms of expression have historically been closely associated with the transmission of ideas.  Petitioners are not merely protesters; they seek not only to express their opposition to abortion but also to engage in personal conversations with women about various alternatives to abortion.  “It is thus no answer to say that petitioners can still be seen and heard by women within the buffer zones.  If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled petitioners’ message.  The Court suggested that Massachusetts could adopt legislation similar to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994, which prohibits obstructing, intimidating, or interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services.  The Court also noted that the problems the legislation sought to address were principally limited to one Boston clinic on Saturday mornings.  The police are capable of singling out those who harass or intimidate patients, and so the restrictions in the Act burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the government’s public safety interests.  The government must demonstrate that such alternative measures that would burden substantially less speech would fail, not simply that the chosen route (buffer zones) is easier to enforce.

 

Spacing restrictions on digital billboards do not violate First Amendment

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Hucul Advertising, LLC v. Charter Township of Gaines

(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 5, 2014)

Hucul Advertising, LLC applied for permission to construct a billboard in the Charter Township of Gaines, MI. The application was denied by the Township on the ground that the billboard would violate Chapter 17 of the Gaines Township Zoning Ordinance. At the time, the ordinance permitted billboards only on property that was adjacent to the M-6 highway, and Hucul’s property did not satisfy the adjacency requirement. Hucul Advertising then applied to build a digital billboard on the same property. That application was also denied, both because of the adjacency requirement, and because the proposed digital billboard would be located within 4,000 feet of another digital billboard, which would also be a violation of the ordinance. Hucul then applied to the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) for relief seeking approval to install the digital billboard, which the ZBA denied. The Township later amended the ordinance to require that any proposed billboard be built within 100 feet of the M-6 and to clarify that, in order for a parcel to be “adjacent” to the M-6, it must “abut and have frontage on the M-6.”

Hucul challenged the ZBA decision claiming that the ordinance violated the First Amendment, claiming that the requirement of 4,000 feet between billboards is an impermissible restriction on commercial speech in violation of the First Amendment, that the Township treated land adjacent to public property differently from land adjacent to private property in violation of Equal Protection, and that Hucul’s civil rights by enforcing the ordinance. The Township removed the case from state court to federal district court. The district court held that the 4,000-foot spacing requirement constituted a valid “time place, and manner” restriction on speech and did not violate the First Amendment, and also dismissed the other claims.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the “time, place, and manner” test was appropriate in this situation.  Hucul argued that the Central Hudson test for the regulation of commercial speech was the appropriate test; however, the Court recognized that the Township’s regulation did not distinguish between commercial and non-commercial billboards.  in applying the “time, place and manner” test the Court affirmed that aesthetics and traffic safety are significant interests that warrant government regulation.  The Court refused to invalidate the 4,000 foot spacing requirement, stating that just because state law would permit a lesser spacing requirement, evidence presented in district court supported a greater spacing for digital billboards because their increased visibility and changing copy make them greater distractions to motorists.  Finally, the regulation leaves open ample alternative avenues of expression because the regulations do not prohibit handing out leaflets or public speech in this or other locations.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision in favor of the Township.

NE Federal District Court finds donation box regulation not sufficiently narrowly tailored to prevent fraud

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

Linc-Drop Inc, v. City of Lincoln

(Federal District Court for the District of Nebraska, February 18, 2014)

In Lincoln, Nebraska the company Linc-Drop (a for-profit corporation) is contracted by the Nebraska chapter of the March of Dimes (a non-profit charity) to maintain donation drop boxes for secondhand clothing that is donated to them. The March of Dimes contracts with landowners for locations to place the donation boxes. The clothing that is donated is technically owned by the March of Dimes but Linc-Drop owns the donation drop boxes. The contract between March of Dimes and Linc-Drop provides that Linc-Drop can be directed to deliver the donated clothing to a location chosen by the March of Dimes; however, this has never happened. Instead, Linc-Drop sells the donated clothing for 20¢ per pound and pays the March of Dimes 2¢ per pound (totaling about $25,000-30,000 per year).

In response to this situation, the City of Lincoln enacted an Ordinance that contained two critical provisions. First, the Ordinance provides that no person may “place or hold out to the public any donation box for people to drop off articles of unwanted household items, clothing or other items of personal property, unless at least 80% of the gross proceeds from the sale of such items shall be utilized for charitable purposes.” (Charitable purposes is not defined in the Ordinance.) Second, the Ordinance requires a permit from the city to legally place a donation box. Only organizations that are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) or a school may obtain a permit. The Ordinance also requires that a donation box must clearly identify the charitable organization responsible for maintaining it. Violation of the Ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 6 months imprisonment, and each day is considered to be a separate offense.

Linc-Drop challenged the constitutionality of the Ordinance on First Amendment grounds, and sought a preliminary injunction preventing the City from enforcing it pending the outcome of the challenge.

According to the Federal District Court for the District of Nebraska, when evaluating the regulation of professional charitable solicitation, the Court considers whether (1) the City had a sufficient or legitimate interest in enacting the Ordinance, (2) the interest identified is significantly furthered by a narrowly-tailored regulation, and (3) the regulation substantially limits charitable solicitations. The City resisted the application of this standard of review, arguing that Linc-Drop is not engaged in charitable solicitation but is rather “using the March of Dimes name to hoodwink the city’s unwitting residents into placing items in the donation boxes instead of donating them to legitimate charitable organizations.”  The Court rejected this position, however, stating that that fact that Linc-Drop is being paid to engage in charitable solicitation does not make it less so.  The court further clarified for the city that the constitutionality of the Ordinance, and not Linc-Drop’s conduct, was the issue of the case. “Whether Linc-Drop is violating the Ordinance, or even whether Linc-Drop is defrauding people, does not change the provisions of the Ordinance or the reasons for its enactment.”

Likewise the Court rejected the city’s position that the boxes are more akin to billboards and should be considered commercial speech.  The Court stated that “the public receptacles are not mere collection points for unwanted items, but are rather silent solicitors and advocates for particular charitable causes….They represent far more than an ‘upturned palm’ or a mere ‘proposal of a commercial transaction that says donate goods here.'”  The solicitation found on the boxes “is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political or social issues.”

In defending the constitutionality of 80 percent requirement of the Ordinance, the City argued that the Ordinance serves two governmental purposes, “preventing deception and ensuring funds go to benefit charitable organizations,” and “protecting charities and the public from fraud.”  The interest in protecting charities and the public from fraud is sufficiently substantial to justify a narrowly-tailored regulation, but the Court pointed out that federal courts have repeatedly decided that using percentages to decide the legality of a fundraiser’s fee is not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preventing fraud.  Citing Supreme Court precedence, the Court noted “several legitimate reasons why a charity might reject the State’s overarching measure of a fundraising drive’s legitimacy…even if the government had a valid interest in protecting charities from their won naivete or economic weakness, a percentage requirement was not narrowly tailored to achieve it.”

The Court also struck down the provision barring professional fundraisers from obtaining permits.  Federal courts have prevented local governments from restraining solicitation by professional fundraisers, even if a high percentage of the funds raised would be used to cover administrative costs.  It is therefore axiomatic that the government cannot categorically restrain all solicitation by professional fundraisers, as the permit prohibition would do.  It is not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preventing fraud.

The Federal District Court of Nebraska determined that the Ordinance is so plainly at odds with precedent of Supreme Court rulings the the preliminary injunction desired by Linc-Drop was granted, and the City was barred from enforcing any aspect of the Ordinance until a final decision is made by the United States Magistrate Judge.

Indiana War Memorials Commission demonstration permit policy found to violate First Amendment

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Eric Smith v. Executive Director of the Indiana War Memorials Commission

(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 4, 2014)

At Soldiers and Sailors Monument Circle in Indianapolis, a war veteran and his son were protesting a proposed United Nations arms treaty. The Monument Circle is an outdoor state‐run public property at the center of downtown. The protest was publicized by distributing a flier, but not a single person other than Smith and his son attended the protest. When the pair began the protest, a Commission employee asked them whether they had a permit (required for any demonstration where fourteen or more individuals are likely to be demonstrating). When they said that they did not, he suggested they move to municipal rather than state property immediately. Then two Indiana State Police officers threatened to arrest Smith if they did not leave. Smith believes that the First Amendment protects his right to demonstrate without a permit. He filed for a permanent injunction against the Commission on the grounds that its permit policy violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The government can in fact restrict the time, place, and manner of expression in a traditional public forum, which the Monument Circle obviously is. However, the restrictions only pass Constitutional muster if they are (1) content-neutral, (2) narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and (3) leave open ample alternative channels of communication. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of Smith stating that the current permit policy is neither content-neutral nor narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.

Content neutral. A permit policy cannot invest “unbridled discretion” in the person who decides whether a permit will issue because excessive discretion can lead to discriminatory enforcement.  The fact that the Commission had never denied a permit application in the past was considered by the court to be immaterial.  The evidence indicated that Commission employees use unguided discretion to choose whether a group that did not obtain a permit in advance will be allowed to obtain one on the spot.  Such a system invites abuse.

Narrowly tailored. A regulation “‘need not be the least restrictive or least intrusive means'” of furthering the government’s interest…but at the same time the government ‘may not regulate expression in such a manner that a substantial portion of the burden on speech does not serve to advance its goals.'”  Whether a numerical limit on gathering without a permit is constitutional depends on the specifics of the space at issue because different spaces can accommodate groups of different sizes without interfering with orderly, fair use of the space; however, the court determined that “considering the size and layout of the space and the fact that groups of twenty-five may gather without a permit at Monument Circle to eat lunch, at least, Smith seems likely to succeed in showing that the fourteen-person limit on demonstrations without a permit is not narrowly tailored.”  The court also found fault with the provision of the permit policy that requires a permit anytime the demonstration has been advertised or the public has been invited, even if the group ultimately is made up of fewer than fifteen people.  To disallow a protest attended by fewer than fifteen people simply because the public was invited and no permit was obtained likely goes too far in restricting speech.  Similarly, the five-hour time limit on being on Commission property without a permit may be too restrictive as it applies to lone individuals or small groups.

Indianapolis ordinance requiring nightly closure of adult bookstores violates First Amendment

by Gary Taylor

Annex Books, Inc. v. City of Indianapolis
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, January 24, 2014)

The city of Indianapolis requires all adult bookstores to close between midnight and 10am daily, and to remain closed all day on Sundays.  In previous (2010) litigation before the 7th Circuit on the same ordinance, the Court found the city’s evidence for the need for a statute requiring closure “weak.”  The evidence the city offered addressed different types of adult materials, and pertained to cities with different types of ordinances, including ordinances that do not require closure.  When the 7th Circuit remanded the case to the district court the city offered one lone justification for the ordinance: that closure resulted in fewer armed robberies near adult bookstores.

The 7th Circuit pointed out that the statistical evidenced offered on this point was not the result of multivariate regression.  When regression analysis was utilized the data no longer supported the proposition that robberies were more likely at late-night adult bookstores versus other late-night establishments such as taverns, liquor stores, pharmacies or convenience stores (which the city did not require to be closed as part of the ordinance).  Moreover, the robberies that did take place more often happened to the bookstore itself and its patrons, rather than to other businesses or passers-by.  “The Supreme Court has not endorsed an approach under which governments can close bookstores in order to reduce crime directed at businesses that knowingly accept the risk of being robbed, or persons who voluntary frequent their premises.”  Citing the Supreme Court in Alameda Books, the court affirmed that “a city cannot regulate the secondary effects of speech by suppressing the speech itself….[The benefits of the Indianapolis ordinance] come from closure: the shuttered shops can’t be robbed at gunpoint, and they lack customers who could be mugged.  If that sort of benefit were enough to justify closure then a city could forbid adult bookstores altogether.”  The case was remanded with an order to issue an injunction preventing the enforcement of the closure ordinance.

Brief run-down of local government cases before the US Supreme Court this fall

Several cases involving local government law are being heard by the US Supreme Court this fall.  The three that are most significant to BLUZ readers are:

Town of Greece v. Galloway

Argument scheduled for November 6, 2013

The Town of Greece, New York, followed the fairly common policy of allowing a person of any or no denomination to conduct an opening prayer at its Town Board meetings.  The Town did not preview or approve the prayer in advance; however, the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Town’s practice a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.  The Court’s holding could affect the longstanding prayer practices of many local governments.

Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly

Argument scheduled for December 4, 2013

The question presented by this case is whether a policy or action (here, a plan to redevelop a low-income minority neighborhood in New Jersey) that disproportionately impacts a protected class of citizens without intentionally discriminating on the basis of race or other factors can give rise to a Fair Housing Act (FHA) claim.  It has long been understood in at least nine federal circuit courts that such claims will stand.  A ruling to the contrary would significantly restrict the types of claims brought under the FHA.

McCullen v. Coakley

Not currently scheduled for oral arguments

The issue is the constitutionality of Massachusetts’s selective exclusion law, which makes it a crime for speakers other than clinic “employees or agents . . . acting within the scope of their employment” to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within thirty-five feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility” – under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, on its face and as applied to petitioners. If the Court decides the issue on broad constitutional grounds, the constitutionality of similar buffers for clinics, funerals, political gatherings, and other events could be called into question or even overturned.

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