Earlier this year, Dalton & Tomich helped secure a major victory on behalf of one of its clients in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In April, the Sixth Circuit in Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns unanimously upheld a preliminary injunction issued by the Western District of Michigan in favor of our client, Planet Aid. The Sixth Circuit's decision continues to prevent St. Johns from enforcing a provision in its Zoning Ordinance that bans charitable donation bins. This decision has had and continues to have a significant, positive impact nationwide for donation bin operators given the rapid growth of the donated textile industry.
Planet Aid is a nonprofit organization that operates charitable donation bins in municipalities across the country to collect donated clothing and shoes. One of the cities in which Planet Aid operated its donation bins was St. Johns, Michigan. However, in 2013, St. Johns amended its Zoning Ordinance to prohibit donation bins within the city. St. Johns claimed the prohibition was necessary because donation bins created nuisance conditions. As a result, Planet Aid was forced to remove all of its bins in St. Johns.
In February 2014, we filed a federal complaint in the Western District of Michigan on behalf of Planet Aid, alleging St. Johns’ amended Zoning Ordinance unconstitutionally infringed upon Planet Aid’s First Amendment free speech rights. We also moved for a preliminary injunction to bar St. Johns from enforcing the Zoning Ordinance. In May 2014, the district court granted our motion for preliminary injunction. Specifically, the court found that Planet Aid was likely to prevail on its free speech claim because (1) a clothing donation bin is a form of constitutionally protected speech, (2) a ban on a form of protected speech must pass strict scrutiny, and (3) the Zoning Ordinance was overly broad and likely to fail strict scrutiny.
St. Johns almost immediately appealed the district court's decision to the Sixth Circuit. On appeal, St. Johns argued the Zoning Ordinance should be subject to intermediate rather than strict scrutiny, claiming the speech associated with charitable donation bins is akin to the commercial speech associated with billboard advertisements. Planet Aid vehemently opposed this position, arguing that charitable donation bins are a form of constitutionally protected speech that is entitled to strict scrutiny.
On April 6, the Sixth Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of Planet Aid. The Sixth Circuit held that St. Johns’ Ordinance was an impermissible content-based restriction on speech because it banned all bins operated to collect “donations” but allowed recycling and trash receptacles to operate without restriction. In other words, the Ordinance completely banned an entire category of speech: charitable solicitation via clothing donation bins. The Court also vehemently rejected St. Johns’ argument that donation bins are akin to billboards. The Court found that donation bins convey a charitable message rather than a strictly commercial message, and charitable speech is entitled to greater protection under the law than commercial speech. The Sixth Circuit thus agreed with the district court that St. Johns’ Ordinance must be subject to strict scrutiny. To survive strict scrutiny, a law must be narrowly tailored to address a compelling government interest. Here, the Sixth Circuit found the Ordinance was not narrowly tailored because there were many less restrictive ways St. Johns could have addressed its concerns about nuisance conditions. Namely, St. Johns could have imposed regulations on donation bins rather than outright banning them.
After the Sixth Circuit made its decision, the case was remanded back to the Western District of Michigan. The case is currently still being litigated. We are very hopeful the Sixth Circuit’s decision will have a wide-ranging beneficial impact on donation bin operators nationwide. At the very least, we believe the decision will serve as a cautionary tale for other municipalities who might be considering banning donation bins. A full copy of the published Sixth Circuit decision is available here.