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Oakland Law Regulating Donation Bins Doesn't Violate 1st Amendment

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

A federal appeals court ruled that a city did not violate the First Amendment by regulating the placement of charitable donation bins.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the regulations did not target any messages the bins might have conveyed. Instead, the court said in Recycle for Change v. City of Oakland, the law applies equally to businesses and non-profits to reduce illegal dumping, graffiti and blight.

"The ordinance regulates the unattended collection of personal items for distribution, reuse, and recycling, without regard to the charitable or business purpose for doing so," Judge Ronald Gould wrote. "That conduct is neither expressive nor communicative."

Permit, Fee and Insurance

The case arose in 2015 after the City of Oakland enacted an ordinance regulating the placement of bins and other receptacles for stand-alone collections in the city. The law required a permit, an annual fee and insurance coverage.

Recycle for Change sued, saying the ordinance violated its free speech rights. The complaint and motion sought a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, but the trial court denied the requested relief.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

No First Amendment Analysis

The court decided the case without deciding whether the bins involved First Amendment protection. Instead, the court assumed so and decided the plaintiff was not likely to prevail on the merits.

Charitable solicitations are protected speech, the court said, and the city ordinance affected the plaintiff's expression. However, the court said, the law was content-neutral and regulated only the boxes.

"Although the function of the boxes requires that they contain a message explaining their function, the Ordinance is indifferent with regard to the nature of that explanation, the inducements provided for donations, or the uses to which the donations will be put," the court said.

Other courts have struck down laws that have sought to ban donation bins, spurring cities to regulate them instead.

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