Hocul Advertising challenged the denial of their permit application to construct a digital billboard. This action was instituted in state court and removed to the United States District Court, Western District of Michigan. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Township.
First, Hocul claimed that the digital billboard regulations violated their First Amendment rights. Specifically, Hocul attacks two provisions: that the billboard be adjacent to the M-6 highway and that digital billboards may not be located within 4,000 feet of another. Hocul alleges these provisions are unreasonable time, place and manner restrictions, and do not reasonably serve a substantial governmental purpose.
The Court stated that time, place and manner restrictions will be upheld where they are content neutral, leave open alternative avenues for communication, and are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. The court first determined that the regulation’s justifications, safety and aesthetics, illustrate that the regulations are content neutral and serve a significant interest. The court also determined that this interest has not been undercut by a previous ordinance that permitted billboards to be located further from the M-6 highway, or the fact that Department of Transportation property abutting the M-6 is treated as part of the M-6 right of way. The court also found that it was not unreasonable for the Township’s regulations to treat digital and static billboards differently. The regulation was also found to be narrowly tailored, regardless of the fact that Michigan law provides a smaller buffer between billboards. This was because the regulations do not need to be the least restrictive possible, but rather cannot be too broad. Finally, the court found that the regulations left open alternative channels of communication. Thus, the District Court determined that the digital billboard regulations did not violate the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution.
Next, the court addressed Hocul’s claim that their Equal Protection rights had been violated because the regulations created two classes of property – adjacent to or not adjacent to the M-6 – and treated them differently. The District Court determined that this claim was moot. During the pendency of this action, the Township amended its zoning regulations to clarify the digital billboard regulations. Hocul did not have a vested interest in the old regulations, because they did not have a permit and substantially complete construction, nor does Hocul’s application comply with the new regulations. Since Hocul can no longer claim a right to the permit, their claim had become moot. The court also ruled that if the claim was not moot, under the rational basis standard, the claim would have failed on the merits.
Hocul Advertising v. Township of Gaines, 2012 WL 4052289 (W.D. Mich., Sept. 14, 2012).