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Donation Bins: Lake Station, Indiana and a new Donation Bin Ordinance

In May 2014, the City of Lake Station, Indiana adopted an ordinance that banned clothing donation bins run by for-profit companies and non-local companies. While these donation bins were banned, other unattended containers such as dumpsters, recycling bins, and local charitable donation bins were not banned. Dalton & Tomich brought suit challenging the ordinance on behalf of USAgain, a company that maintains textile donation bins around the country.

The suit brought against Lake Station was based primarily on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and on the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Specifically, Dalton & Tomich argued that a complete ban of for-profit and non-local donation bins was a content-based restriction of speech. The speech at issue was the donation bins themselves. An appeal for donations, whether or not the appeal is made by a charitable organization, is protected expression.

Dalton and Tomich argued that the ordinance was content-based since the ordinance required an enforcement officer to evaluate the content on an unattended receptacle to determine whether or not the receptacle was banned by the ordinance. Content-based ordinances are subject to strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, an ordinance must be the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. Dalton and Tomich argued that there were certainly less restrictive means available to the city to address its concerns than a total ban of for-profit and non-local donation bins.

After Dalton and Tomich filed suit in the federal district court in the Northern District of Indiana, the parties were able to negotiate a settlement favorable to USAgain and fair to the city. Lake Station approved a constitutionally acceptable ordinance regulating instead of banning for-profit and non-local clothing donation bins, paid legal fees to US’Again and the parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.

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