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Fifth Circuit to Decide Free Speech Case Involving Donation Boxes

Clothing donations boxes continue to pop up in communities across the country. They are usually found in commercial parking lots or in front of churches and schools. They provide an alternative to the local landfill and allow people to donate their clothes towards certain charitable or environmental causes.

What many people don’t know is that donation boxes are a constitutionally protected form of speech. Likes signs or billboards, courts have recognized that donation boxes are a form of communication. They silently solicit the donation of used clothes and promote specific causes.

While some communities welcome donation boxes with open arms, others ban them or try to regulate them out of existence. When these issues end up in litigation, courts must decide complicated constitutional questions regarding just how far a community can go with their restrictions. 

The latest donation box case involves Arms of Hope, Inc. and the City of Mansfield, Texas. Arms of Hope is a charity that helps disadvantaged children and single moms. Arms of Hope uses unattended donation boxes to solicit donated goods that are then used to advance their noble mission. The case arose when Mansfield adopted two ordinances to regulate where and how donation boxes could operate in the City. The first ordinance restricted donation boxes to nine of the City’s twenty zoning districts. The second established a permit process for donation boxes that gave the City discretion over whether to grant a permit or not. The stated goal of these ordinances was to preserve the “aesthetic well-being of the community.”

When the City threatened Arms of Hope with $6,000 per day fines for not removing its existing donation boxes, Arms of Hope sued and secured a court order stopping the City from enforcing its ordinances. The trial court found the ordinances to be overly burdensome and not narrowly tailored to achieve the City’s goals. The court also found the permitting scheme to be an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

The City has now appealed and is asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse trial court’s decision.

At Dalton & Tomich, we have spent many years helping donation bin operators navigate these issues both in and out of court. We have also dealt with many other cases involving the intersection of constitutional rights and land use regulations. So we will continue to monitor the Arms of Hope case closely.

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