Empirical evidence may not be necessary for time, place, and manner regulations on signage

by Eric Christianson

Luce v. Town of Campbell
(Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. September 22, 2017)

Interstate 90 runs through the town of Campbell, Wisconsin where it is crossed by two streets and a pedestrian overpass.

Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, two members of the local Tea Party, chose to use the pedestrian overpass to promote their views. With their group, they held American flags along with banners and signs messages such as “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA.” This led the Town’s legislature to enact an ordinance forbidding all signs, flags, and banners (other than traffic-control information) on any of the three overpasses, or within 100 feet of the end of these structures.

Complicating this case is the fact that the local police chief, Tim Kelemen, and the Tea Party protesters escalated the conflict. The members of the Tea Party group posted videos and messages online. One video showed police removing a protestor for unfurling an American flag.

The police chief responded by posting the name and email address of one of the protestors on same-sex dating and pornography websites. Kelemen also posted comments on the local newspaper’s website accusing that protestor of failing to pay his property taxes and other debts and asserting that his car was about to be repossessed. When this behavior was revealed, Kelemen resigned his post as police chief and was prosecuted for “unlawful use of a computerized communication system.”

In this case the plaintiffs considered the actions of the police chief to have been retaliation by the city for their speech. However the court found that Kelemen’s vigilante actions were private in nature:

The court concluded that Kelemen was not engaged in state action when “messing with” Luce and that the First Amendment therefore did not apply (for it deals only with governmental conduct). Acting as a vigilante is not part of a police officer’s job. Kelemen did some of the dirty work while on duty and used an office computer for some posts. But he did not use official information or privileged access to information. All of the facts he gathered and disclosed about Luce, such as his physical and email addresses, were available to the general public. Anyone else could have done exactly what Kelemen did.

While Kelemen’s actions were not “state action” the court does say that his actions undermine his credibility as a witness stating the dangers presented by signage on the overpass. While one photograph of a car, which had stopped to take a picture, was shared at trial, without Kelemen’s testimony there was no other evidence to prove this law advances a “significant governmental interest.”

However, the court asserts that case law shows that reasonable, content-neutral, time, place, and manner restrictions on speech have not required empirical evidence to pass constitutional muster. As long as the legislatures assertions are reasonable, “the Court “hesitate[s] to disagree with the accumulated, common-sense judgments of local lawmakers.” Novel signs do attract more attention than fixed billboards. The City Council does not need a specific double-blind study to support that fact in this case.

A regulation of the sort the Town has adopted rests on a belief that overhead signs and banners will cause at least some drivers to slow down in order to read what the banners say, and perhaps to react to them (say, by blowing the car’s horn in response to “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA”). Stopping to take a picture is just an extreme version of slowing down. Reading an overhead banner requires some of each driver’s attention, and diverting attention—whether to banners or to cell phones and texting—increases the risk of accidents. This effect is well established for cell phones and texting and is the basis for legislation by many jurisdictions, uncontested in court as far as we are aware, though talking and texting are speech.

It does not take a double-blind empirical study, or a linear regression analysis, to know that the presence of overhead signs and banners is bound to cause some drivers to slow down in order to read the sign before passing it. When one car slows suddenly, another may hit it unless the drivers of the following cars are alert—and, alas, not all drivers are alert all the time

The court did remand a portion of the law which bans all signage within 100 feet of the overpasses including those which would not be visible to drivers on the interstate.

Landowner prevails on First Amendment retailiation claim for Township’s stop work order

by Victoria Heldt

George T. Paeth, Margaret C. Paeth v. Worth Township (Michigan)
(United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, June 8, 2012)

George and Margaret Paeth own a house in Worth Township, Michigan that was not in compliance with the Township’s five-foot setback requirement when they purchased it in 1998.  They made plans to add on to the first floor and replace the roof, which would expand the house’s footprint in the northeast and northwest corners.  After communication with Barbara Cutcher, Worth Township’s zoning administrator, the property was surveyed.  The Paeths received a land use permit from the Township in April 1999 and a building permit from the County building department in June 1999.  In 2002 the Township formed a building department, which assumed the responsibilities of the County’s building department.  Cutcher became the Township’s zoning and building administrator.

In June 2004, Cutcher sent a letter to the Paeths informing them that their house was not in compliance with the setback ordinance.  It instructed them to contact zoning administrator Lynn Laughlin to address the “serious problem.”  The Paeths submitted a variance application and Laughlin requested another property survey.  The survey showed that the 1999 survey underestimated the distance between the house and the property line.  The Township claimed that, due to the survey error, Cutcher relied on false information when she originally granted the permit.  The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted to deny the variance, meaning the Paeths would have to correct the variance by removing portions of the house.

The matter was taken to the circuit court on three different occasions.  The circuit court eventually reversed the decision of the ZBA and granted the variance to the Paeths.  The Township appealed the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction in July 2007.  In November 2007 Cutcher posted a stop work order on the Paeth’s property until they obtained a new permit.  The Paeths did not receive the required hearing before the order was posted.

Cutcher claimed that, had the Paeths requested a new permit, the matter would have been resolved quickly.  Instead, the Paeths contacted the State of Michigan Office of Local Government and Consumer Services to determine whether their 2003 permit was valid.  It concluded that it was and that the Paeths could continue work so long as their activities complied with code.  Cutcher wrote the Paeths a letter confirming the valid permit but insisting that she be allowed to inspect the property for code compliance before the Paeths complete any more work on their property.  The Paeths failed to contact her and the stop work order remained on the property until October when it was removed pursuant to a district court order.

In September 2008 the Paeths sued the Township in federal district court on four counts:  (1) violation of their First Amendment rights when Cutcher and the Township retaliated against them for appealing the ZBA’s variance decision; (2) violation of the Equal Protection Clause; (3) violation of substantive and procedural due process because of the issuance of the stop work order without notice or an opportunity to respond; and (4) a request for mandamus and superintending control.  After a five day trial, the court ruled in favor of the Paeths on the First Amendment claim.  It ruled in favor of the Township on count two and on the substantive due process claim in count three.  In regards to the procedural due process claim, the court also ruled in favor of the Paeths.  It noted that the Paeths have “a property interest in continuing construction on their home” and that the Township’s stop work order without the necessary prior notice deprived them of it.  It concluded that the stop work order was contrary to state law and constituted a procedural due process violation.  The court determined count four to be moot.  The Paeths were granted a little more than $200,000 in attorneys fees.

The Township appealed the procedural due process violation.  The Court noted that it is not necessary to determine if the Paeths had a property interest in the construction to determine if a procedural due process violation exists.  Procedural due process claims do not answer to local statutes or ordinances; rather a federal framework consisting of three factors must be considered to make the determination.   The Court analyzed (1) the private interest that will be affected by the official action; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and (3) the Government’s interest.

The Court determined there was not a due process violation.  The Paeths were given sufficient due process since the order came with instructions for how to apply for a new permit.  The process to apply for a new permit is relatively simple and the Paeths would have been only mildly inconvenienced.  In addition, the Government’s interest in the matter was fairly significant.  A fair amount of time had passed since the property was last inspected and evidence existed that the house was not in compliance with code.  The Township had a rightful interest in preventing any work that might further the property’s non-compliance.  The Court reversed the ruling and vacated the damages associated with it.

The Township also appealed the First Amendment ruling, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to prove a violation took place.  It purported that the “adverse action” and “causal connection between the action and protected conduct” requirements of a retaliation claim were not met.  The Court disagreed, concluding that the Township’s issuance of the stop work order and failure to provide notice constituted adverse actions.  Furthermore, sufficient evidence was presented to show a causal connection between the adverse action and the right to appeal the ZBA’s decision.  Testimonies from Cutcher and a member of the ZBA supported the connection.  The Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling on this claim as well as the damages for the violation and the attorneys fees.

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