Court Finds First Amendment Problems with Ban on Unattended, Charitable Bins

Planet Aid

Planet Aid yellow bin.

Imposing a ban on outdoor, unattended charitable donation bins likely violates the First Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled, in a battle between Planet Aid and officials in St. Johns, Mich.

The dispute began shortly after Planet Aid, a nonprofit charitable organization established in Massachusetts, placed two bins in two locations with the permission of the property owners.  Planet Aid solicits donations of clothing and shoes through its bins.

City officials confiscated the bins and later passed an ordinance prohibiting unattended, charitable donation bins.  The ordinance provided: “No person, business or other entity shall place, use or allow the installation of a donation box within the City of St. Johns.”

Planet Aid sued, alleging a violation of its First Amendment rights.

A federal district court granted the organization a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing the law. The city appealed to the Sixth U.S. Court of Appeals, arguing that the ordinance was necessary to preserve aesthetics and to prevent nuisances.

On April 6, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit rejected the city’s arguments, in  Planet Aid v. City of St. Johns.

At first glance, the decision may cause some to wonder how a donation bin triggers heightened free-speech protections.  But, the decision explains that such bins convey messages about charitable solicitations and donations to the public.

The panel first explained that the donation bids were a form of charitable solicitation triggering substantial First Amendment protections.  Next, the panel analyzed whether the ordinance discriminated the group’s speech based on content.   In legal terms, the panel addressed whether the city’s ordinance was content-based or content-neutral.   The distinction is significant, because the government has a higher burden to justify a content-based law.

The ordinance is content-based, because it banned only the unattended bins of charitable organizations not all unattended receptacles, such as “dumpsters, receptacles at recycling centers, and public and private trash cans.”

When an ordinance discriminates against speech based on content, the government must show that its regulation furthers a very strong or compelling interest and does so in a narrowly tailored way. The Sixth Circuit panel ruled that even if the city had a compelling interest in aesthetics, the ordinance was far from narrowly tailored.

The city could have required weekly or bi-weekly pick-ups rather than institute a total ban on the bins.  The panel also noted that city officials assumed without any evidence.that the charities would be negligent in picking up the bins.

David L. Hudson Jr. is the First Amendment Ombudsman for the Newseum Institute.

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