Justia Communications Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Zoning, Planning & Land Use
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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court affirming the judgment of the Board of County Commissioners of Park County approving Trial County Telephone Association, Inc.'s (TCT) application for a special use permit to construct a 150-foot broadband communications tower in Park County, holding that the Board did not arbitrarily or capriciously in approving the application.Specifically, the Supreme Court held (1) the Board had a rational basis to conclude that the proposed was not oversized, and therefore, the Board's approval of TCT's application did not violate Park County development regulations; and (2) the Park County regulations did not require the Board to consider alternative sites for a project before approving a special use permit, and it therefore did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in approving the application without considering alternative locations for the proposed tower. View "Jolovich v. Board of County Commissioners of Park County" on Justia Law

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Westfield amended its ordinance governing signs within city limits. Out of a stated concern for public safety and aesthetics, the ordinance requires those wishing to install a sign or billboard to apply for a permit. The ordinance exempts directional signs, scoreboards, particular flags, and notices on gas pumps and vending machines. It prohibits signs on poles and those advertising ideas, products, or services not offered on the same premises (off-premises signs). Those seeking to install a non-compliant sign may appeal the denial of a permit or, if necessary, request a variance. GEFT applied for a permit to build a large digital billboard on private property along U.S. Highway 31 in Westfield. Because of the proposed sign’s off-premises location and use of a pole, Westfield denied GEFT’s application and subsequent variance request.GEFT sued, 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Seventh Circuit previously upheld a restraining order compelling GEFT to cease all actions to install its proposed billboard pending the outcome of the litigation. The district court later granted GEFT summary judgment and permanently enjoined Westfield from enforcing many aspects of its ordinance. The Seventh Circuit remanded for consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in “City of Austin v. Reagan National;” the fact that the city must read a sign to evaluate its conformity with regulations is not alone determinative of whether the regulation is content-based. View "GEFT Outdoors, LLC v. City of Westfield" on Justia Law

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Austin Texas specially regulates signs that advertise things that are not located on the same premises as the sign and signs that direct people to offsite locations (off-premises signs). Its sign code prohibited the construction of new off-premises signs. Grandfathered off-premises signs could remain in their existing locations but could not be altered in ways that increased their nonconformity. On-premises signs were not similarly restricted. Advertisers, denied permits to digitize some billboards, argued that the prohibition against digitizing off-premises signs, but not on-premises signs, violated the First Amendment. The district court upheld the code. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding the distinction "facially content-based" because an official had to read a sign’s message to determine whether it was off-premises.The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the view that any examination of speech or expression inherently triggers heightened First Amendment concern. Restrictions on speech may require some evaluation of the speech and nonetheless remain content-neutral. The on-/off-premises distinction is facially content-neutral; it does not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment. A sign’s message matters only to the extent that it informs the relative location. The on-/off-premises distinction is more like ordinary time, place, or manner restrictions, which do not trigger strict scrutiny. Content-based regulations are those that discriminate based on the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. The Court remanded, noting that evidence that an impermissible purpose or justification underpins a facially content-neutral restriction may mean that the restriction is nevertheless content-based and, to survive intermediate scrutiny, a restriction on speech or expression must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 1981, a Georgia federal district court concluded that Atlanta’s zoning regulations for adult businesses were constitutionally overbroad in their entirety and permanently enjoined their enforcement. Atlanta did not appeal. Cheshire operates an Atlanta adult novelty and video store, Tokyo Valentino, and sued, asserting that the definitions of “adult bookstore,” “adult motion picture theater,” “adult mini motion picture theater,” “adult cabaret,” and “adult entertainment establishment” in the current Atlanta City Code are facially overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.On remand, the district court granted Atlanta summary judgment. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The district court did not err in providing a narrowing construction of certain terms (the term “patron” in the definitions of “adult motion picture theater” and “adult mini-motion picture theater”) in the challenged provisions. The phrase “intended, designed, or arranged” suggests that the challenged provisions do not apply to isolated or intermittent uses of the property. Cheshire failed to show that any overbreadth in the provisions is “substantial” as required by Supreme Court precedent. The challenged provisions do not purport to ban the activities or conduct they define or describe but are part of a zoning scheme regulating where covered establishments can locate or operate. View "Cheshire Bridge Holdings, LLC, v. City of Atlanta," on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs-Appellants Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health & Safety, Arthur Firstenberg, and Monika Steinhoff (collectively the “Alliance”) brought a number of claims under Section 704 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“TCA”), New Mexico’s Wireless Consumer Advanced Infrastructure Investment Act (“WCAIIA”), the Amendments to Chapter 27 of the Santa Fe City City Code, and Santa Fe mayor proclamations. The Alliance alleged the statutes and proclamations violated due process, the Takings Clause, and the First Amendment. Through its amended complaint, the Alliance contended the installation of telecommunications facilities, primarily cellular towers and antennas, on public rights-of-way exposed its members to dangerous levels of radiation. The Alliance further contended these legislative and executive acts prevented it from effectively speaking out against the installation of new telecommunications facilities. The United States moved to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), and (b)(6), and the City of Santa Fe moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The district court concluded that while the Alliance pled sufficient facts to establish standing to assert its constitutional claims, the Alliance failed to allege facts stating any constitutional claim upon which relief could be granted, thus dismissing claims against all defendants, including New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. The Tenth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the Alliance's constitutional claims, finding apart from the district court, that the Alliance lacked standing to raise its takings and due process claims not premised on an alleged denial of notice. Furthermore, the Court held that while the Alliance satisfied the threshold for standing as to its First Amendment and procedural due process claims (premised on the WCAIIA and Chapter 27 Amendments), the district court properly dismissed these claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). View "Santa Fe Alliance v. City of Santa Fe" on Justia Law

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To advertise its nearby adult bookstore, Lion’s Den displays a billboard, affixed to a tractor-trailer, on a neighbor’s property. Kentucky’s Billboard Act prohibits such off-site billboards if the advertisement is not securely affixed to the ground, the sign is attached to a mobile structure, and no permit has been obtained. None of these requirements applies to an on-site billboard advertisement. The Act applies equally to commercial and non-commercial speech on billboards.In a First Amendment challenge to the Act, the Sixth Circuit affirmed an injunction, prohibiting the Commonwealth from enforcing its law. The Act regulates commercial and non-commercial speech on content-based grounds by distinguishing between messages concerning on-site activities and those concerning off-site activities. The court applied strict scrutiny and held that the Act is not tailored to achieve Kentucky’s purported interests in safety and aesthetics. Kentucky has offered no reason to believe that on-site signs pose a greater threat to safety than do off-site signs and billboards are a "greater eyesore." View "L.D. Management Co. v. Gray" on Justia Law

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International, an outdoor advertising company, sought to erect digital billboards in two separate locations within the City of Troy. International's permit and variance applications were denied. International filed suit (42 U.S.C. 1983), alleging that the ordinance granted unfettered discretion and contained unconstitutional content-based restrictions as it exempted from permit requirements certain categories of signs, such as flags and “temporary signs.” During the litigation, Troy amended the Ordinance.The Sixth Circuit remanded. The original Ordinance imposed a prior restraint because the right to display a sign that did not come within an exception as a flag or as a “temporary sign” depended on obtaining either a permit or a variance. The standards for granting a variance contained multiple vague, undefined criteria, such as “public interest,” “general purpose and intent,” “adversely affect[ing],” and “hardship.” Even meeting these criteria did not guarantee a variance; the Board retained discretion to deny it. The amendment, however, rendered the action for declaratory and injunctive relief moot. The severability of the variance provisions rendered moot its claim for damages. The court reinstated a claim that the ordinance imposed content-based restrictions without a compelling government interest for reconsideration under the correct standard. A regulation of commercial speech that is not content-neutral is still subject to strict scrutiny. View "International Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Troy" on Justia Law

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In 1938, West’s predecessor granted Louisville Gas & Electric’s predecessor a perpetual easement permitting a 248-foot-tall tower carrying high-voltage electric lines. In 1990, Louisville sought permission to allow Charter Communication install on the towers a fiber-optic cable that carries communications (telephone service, cable TV service, and internet data); West refused. In 2000 Louisville concluded that the existing easement allows the installation of wires that carry photons (fiber-optic cables) along with the wires that carry electrons. West disagreed and filed suit, seeking compensation.The Seventh Circuit affirmed that the use that Louisville and Charter have jointly made of the easement is permissible under Indiana law. The court cited 47 U.S.C. 541(a)(2), part of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which provides: Any franchise shall be construed to authorize the construction of a cable system over public rights-of-way, and through easements, which is within the area to be served by the cable system and which have been dedicated for compatible uses, except that in using such easements the cable operator shall ensure…. The court examined the language of the easement and stated: “At least the air rights have been “dedicated” to transmission, and a telecom cable is “compatible” with electric transmission. Both photons and electrons are in the electromagnetic spectrum.” View "West v. Charter Communications, Inc." on Justia Law

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A Downers Grove ordinance limits the size and location of signs. Leibundguth claimed that it violated the First Amendment because its exceptions were unjustified content discrimination. The ordinance does not require permits for holiday decorations, temporary signs for personal events such as birthdays, “[n]oncommercial flags,” or political and noncommercial signs that do not exceed 12 square feet, “[m]emorial signs and tablets.” The Seventh Circuit upheld the ordinance. Leibundguth is not affected by the exceptions. Leibundguth’s problems come from the ordinance’s size and surface limits: One is painted on a wall, which is prohibited; another is too large; a third wall has two signs that vastly exceed the limit of 159 square feet for Leibundguth’s building. The signs would fare no better if they were flags or carried a political message. A limit on the size and presentation of signs is a standard time, place, and manner rule. The Supreme Court has upheld aesthetic limits that justified without reference to the content or viewpoint of speech, serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample channels for communication. The Village gathered evidence that signs painted on walls tend to deteriorate faster than other signs. Many people believe that smaller signs are preferable. Absent content or viewpoint discrimination, that aesthetic judgment supports the legislation, which leaves open ample ways to communicate. View "Leibundguth Storage & Van Service, Inc. v. Village of Downers Grove" on Justia Law

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Tennessee’s Billboard Act, enacted to comply with the Federal Highway Beautification Act, 23 U.S.C. 131, provides that anyone intending to post a sign along a roadway must apply to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) for a permit unless the sign falls within one of the Act’s exceptions. One exception applies to signage “advertising activities conducted on the property on which [the sign is] located.” Thomas owned a billboard on an otherwise vacant lot and posted a sign on it supporting the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympics Team. Tennessee ordered him to remove it because TDOT had denied him a permit and the sign did not qualify for the “on-premises” exception, given that there were no activities on the lot to which the sign could possibly refer. Thomas argued that the Act violated the First Amendment. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that the Act is unconstitutional. The on-premises exception was content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. Whether the Act limits on-premises signs to only certain messages or limits certain messages from on-premises locations, the limitation depends on the content of the message. It does not limit signs from or to locations regardless of the messages. The provision was not severable from the rest of the Act. View "Thomas v. Bright" on Justia Law