Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a published, unanimous opinion, affirmed a preliminary injunction in favor of our client Planet Aid against the City of St. Johns, which prevents the City from enforcing its ban of clothing donation bins. While the ruling is very important to the case in St. Johns, its effects will be felt around the country as the donated textile industry continues to grow.
A full examination of the facts in Planet Aid vs. St. Johns can be found in our blog post here. In a nutshell, the City passed Ordinance 618, which bans clothing donation bins from operating within City limits. Our client Planet Aid, a charitable non-profit organization that operates clothing donation bins, was forced to remove its bins from St. Johns due to Ordinance 618. We brought suit on behalf of Planet Aid in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan challenging the legality of the Ordinance.
In order to protect Planet Aid’s rights throughout the length of the case, we moved for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent St. Johns from enforcing Ordinance 618 until the Court made a final decision on the legality of the Ordinance. Judge Neff granted our motion for preliminary injunction based upon our First Amendment Free Speech claim. She found that Planet Aid was likely to prevail on the Free Speech claim because (1) a clothing donation bin is a form of protected speech, (2) a ban on a form of protected free speech must pass strict scrutiny, and (3) Ordinance 618 was overly broad and likely to fail strict scrutiny. The City appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
On appeal, the City argued that Ordinance 618 should be subject to intermediate scrutiny, which is more lenient than strict scrutiny, and that the preliminary injunction should be reversed. The City argued that the donation bins were similar to billboards, and thus not entitled to strong constitutional protection. Oral argument was held on March 5 before Judges Griffin, Stranch, and Steeh. On April 6, the Sixth Circuit issued an opinion unanimously affirming the preliminary injunction.
In its opinion, which can be read here, the Sixth Circuit held that Ordinance 618 was viewpoint-neutral but content-based. This was because the Ordinance banned all bins that were to be used for “donations,” while bins used for recycling or trash remained legal. So even though the Ordinance did not discriminate between charitable viewpoints, it did eliminate an entire category of speech having to do with a particular topic – charitable solicitation and giving. The Court also found that charitable donation bins are not similar to billboards, and that their ability to communicate a charitable message gives them greater protection under the law.
Since the Court held that Ordinance 618 was content-based, it further held that Ordinance 618 must be subject to strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, a law can only survive if it is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. The Court only addressed the “narrowly tailored” requirement. The Court found that Ordinance 618 was not narrowly tailored because there were less restrictive ways the City could have achieved its goals such as regulating donation bins instead of banning them outright. The case will now continue at the district court.
Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Judge Neff’s order granting the preliminary injunction in favor of Planet Aid. With companies such as Planet Aid growing quickly around the country, this opinion has the potential to impact hundreds of municipalities. Many municipalities have passed laws similar to Ordinance 618 that attempt to ban or severely restrict clothing donation bins. Now, these ordinances must be re-evaluated or face the prospect of being struck down by the federal courts. We will be sure to post more updates to this area of law as they become available.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC are on the cutting edge of First Amendment law. We represent individuals and organizations across the country and here in Michigan. While we encourage and facilitate out-of-court resolutions, we have had tremendous success litigating cases such as Planet Aid. If you feel your rights or the rights of your organization are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.