My last entry had to do with billboards, dealing with an interesting case from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. in this case is similar. I should mention also that both cases were brought to my attention by Sam Edwards, who has been really scouring the advance sheets for new and interesting cases.
International Outdoor v City of Troy, decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, issued just yesterday, September 4, 2020, parallels the case we reviewed in the last entry. In this case, the trial court dismissed the a claim of prior restraint made by the sign company against the city because the claim had been mooted out as a result of some changes made to the sign regulations during the pendency of the litigation. I will not discuss the mootness issues although they are certainly interesting.
More interesting however in the context of this blog is the impact of Reed v Town of Gilbert, 576 US 155 (2015). I won’t get into the factual allegations beyond saying that the sign company alleged in particular that some signs were exempted from having to apply for a permit at all (including flags, temporary signs, real estate signs, garage, estate or yard sale signs, noncommercial and political signs, holiday or seasonal signs and construction signs were all included). In a footnote, the Sixth Circuit indicated that taking the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the sign company alleged facts showing that it incurred costs that other applicants were exempt from because its proposed signs were not afforded the same favored treatment under the ordinance. From the standpoint of the Sixth Circuit, this conferred standing.
As I mentioned in the previous entry, because the Reed court concluded that “strict scrutiny applies either when a law is content based on its face or when the purpose and justification for the law are content based, a court must evaluate each question before concludes that the law is content neutral and thus subject to a lower level of scrutiny.” Reed at 166. The Sixth Circuit concluded that intermediate scrutiny generally applicable to commercial speech applies only to a speech regulation that is content neutral on its face. That is, a regulation of commercial speech that is not content neutral is still subject to strict scrutiny under Reed.
Much as the Fifth Circuit did in the Reagan National Advertising case discussed in the last entry, the Sixth Circuit then turned to look at several other circuit court decisions many of which concluded that the intermediate standard applicable to commercial speech still applied. See Central Hudson v Public Service Commission, 447 US 557 (1980). The Sixth Circuit distinguished many of those cases, and also pointed to Barr v American Association of Political Consultants, 140 S Ct 2335 (2020) applied strict scrutiny to a content-based restriction on robo calls to cell phones. In addition, the Sixth Circuit pointed out its own decision in Wagoner v City of Garfield Heights, 577 F. Appx 488 (6th Cir. 2014), cert granted and judgment vacated, 135 S Ct 2888 (2015). The Sixth Circuit had applied a practical test for assessing content neutrality concluding that in the Wagoner case, the city had satisfied the intermediate scrutiny applicable to such regulations. The Supreme Court did not agree, reversed, and remanded for consideration of Reed. This reversal by the Supreme Court had the act of solidifying the Sixth Circuit's conclusion that in the absence of content neutrality, the strict scrutiny test must apply.
In addition, the court also referenced its decision in Thomas v Bright, 937 F. 3d 721 (6th Cir. 2019), also discussed in the prior post, in which the owner of billboards in Tennessee challenged the on-premise restrictions found in the Tennessee Billboard Act. The Sixth Circuit invalidated the act as being contrary to Reed.
While the court acknowledged that both Wagoner and Thomas concerned non-commercial speech, "the regulations in both cases were deemed unconstitutional due to their content-based nature: they required an inspection of the message to determine whether it was political, as in Wagoner, or related to any on-premises activity, as in Thomas, in order to determine the sign’s permissibility under the regulations.”
In this case, the District Court concluded that the speech at issue, erecting advertising billboards, was commercial speech and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny. Furthermore the District Court held that the ordinance provisions satisfied intermediate scrutiny under Central Hudson.
But the Sixth Circuit reversed because it felt that the district court applied the wrong standard. The Sign Ordinance imposed a content-based restriction by exempting certain types of messages from the permitting requirements, such as flags and temporary signs and the other signs I’ve listed above. Thus, the ordinance regulated both commercial and non-commercial speech but treated them differently, requiring the city to consider the content of the message before deciding which treatment should be afforded. For content-based restrictions on speech, strict scrutiny applies, not intermediate scrutiny.
Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision of the District Court dismissing the plaintiff’s claims against the content-based restrictions found in the sign regulations, and remanded for consideration of the Reed analysis.
Okay, then the question here is how often do you see such distinctions between flags, real estate signs construction signs, yard sale signs, holiday signs political signs where such signs are either required to obtain no permit, or have some lesser burden in obtaining permission. Fairly frequently it seems to me. Under this Sixth Circuit case, it seems that such differentiation may be entirely unlawful.