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Thursday, April 9, 2015

TRO Against City's Ban on Charity Collection Boxes Upheld

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the district court's issuance of a temporary restraining order against the City of St. John, Michigan relating to its ban on charity collection bins.  Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns (6th Cir. April 6, 2015)

Last year, St. Johns adopted an anti-blight ordinance banning off-site donation boxes.  Section 5.518(1)(a) of the ordinance defines a “[d]onation box” as “[a]n outdoor, unattended receptacle designed with a door, slot, or other opening that is intended to accept donated goods or items.” The ban states that "No person, business or other entity shall place, use or allow the installation of a donation box within the City of St. Johns.” Section 5.518(1)(b) describes the purpose of the ordinance as follows: 
It is the intent of this section to prohibit donation boxes to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city by preventing blight, protecting property values and neighborhood integrity, avoiding the creation and maintenance of nuisances and ensuring the safe and sanitary maintenance of properties. Unattended donation boxes in the city may become an attractive nuisance for minors and/or criminal activity. It is also the intent of this section to preserve the aesthetics and character of the community by prohibiting the placement of donation boxes.
After the ban was passed, the City removed two bins placed by the  organization "Planet Aid." Shortly afterward, Planet Aid filed a lawsuit against the City challenging the ban, arguing that it violated Planet Aid’s First Amendment rights because it infringed on Planet Aid’s protected speech of charitable solicitation and giving.  

After holding oral argument, the district court granted plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The district court concluded that “Planet Aid’s operation of donation bins to solicit and collect charitable donations qualifies as protected speech under the First Amendment” and that the Ordinance #was subject to strict scrutiny. The court held that Planet Aid, in arguing that the ordinance fails strict scrutiny because it implements an overly broad, prophylactic ban on all bins so the City can avoid dealing with hypothetical nuisances or other issues that may arise with certain bins in the future, proved a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits of its free speech claim.

The case was appealed to the 6th Circuit, which upheld the district court's issuance of the TRO. The appeals court determined that the ordinance "clearly regulates protected speech on the basis of its content. The ordinance does not ban or regulate all unattended, outdoor receptacles. It bans only those unattended, outdoor receptacles with an expressive message on a particular topic— charitable solicitation and giving" - an expression that the U.S. Supreme Court has found "worthy of strong constitutional protection." As a result, the ordinance was subject to strict scrutiny, which the City could not satisfy.

The remainder of the case will move forward, subject to the injunction against enforcement of the ordinance.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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