Scaringi Law Wins Big Case - Again - Defending the 1st Amendment Rights of the Residents of Camp Hill Borough, PA

Scaringi Law is proud to announce that we won the appeal involving the Camp Hill Borough Republican Association et al., v. Borough of Camp Hill, et al., in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In its Opinion written by Circuit Court Judge Stephanos Bibas, and filed today, May 9, 2024, a panel of three judges affirmed the decision of Middle District Court Judge, Jennifer P. Wilson, that struck down two sections of the Camp Hill Borough Sign Ordinance because they violate our clients’ (and in fact all the residents of Camp Hill Borough) rights to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In this matter, Scaringi Law represents three plaintiffs who challenged the Camp Hill Sign Ordinance: the Camp Hill Borough Republican Association and Camp Hill Borough residents Caroline Machiraju and Katherine Pearson. Camp Hill Borough ordered Ms. Machiraju to take down one of her political yard signs because she had posted too many (2 political yard signs is the limit in the Ordinance) and ordered Ms. Pearson to take down all her political yard signs because she had posted them too early (60 days prior to the election is the limit in the Ordinance). All the political yard signs posted by Ms. Machiraju and Ms. Pearson promoted Republicans for elective office.

Ms. Machiraju, Ms. Pearson, and the Camp Hill Borough Republican Association retained Scaringi Law to defend their Constitutional right to free speech against this Ordinance. Scaringi Law filed a lawsuit under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act claiming, inter alia, that those two sections of the Ordinance on their face violate the First Amendment. We argued that political yard signs, which were regulated by the Ordinance as “Personal Expression Signs related to a singular event,” were treated differently from other signs based upon the content of the message displayed on the sign, and as such the Ordinance is content-based and should be struck down under the legal test known as strict scrutiny.

The District Court agreed with us. On March 29, 2023, the Honorable Jennifer P. Wilson, Judge, the United States Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment for our clients Ms. Machiraju and Ms. Pearson, and against the Camp Hill Borough. Judge Wilson struck down those sections of the Ordinance that imposed durational and numerical limits on certain yard signs deemed to be “Personal Expression Signs related to an event” (i.e., campaign or political yard signs). The event in this case was the 2022 general election.

In finding that the Ordinance was content-based, and thus constitutionally suspect, the District Court focused on the difference in durational and numerical limits between political and ideological speech, i.e., “Personal Expression Signs related to a singular event,” e.g. “Candidate X for Office 2024” and those not related to a singular event, e.g. “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” respectively. The District Court found that Personal Expression Signs related to a singular event, i.e., political speech, were more restricted than those not related to a singular event, i.e., ideological speech. The District Court also compared “Personal Expression Signs related to a singular event” to Security and Warning Signs, Holiday Decorations, and Directional Signs, and held that Personal Express Signs were more severely restricted. Thus, the Court struck down those two challenged sections of the Ordinance because it found the Ordinance was content-based, in that it discriminated based upon the message of the sign, and did not pass strict scrutiny.

The Borough of Camp Hill appealed Judge Wilson’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Today, the Third Circuit issued an Opinion of the Court affirming (i.e., agreeing with) Judge Wilson’s Order declaring the two sections of the Ordinance unconstitutional. On appeal, the Borough of Camp Hill tried to reinterpret their Ordinance and its treatment of temporary signs as distinguishing between commercial and non-commercial speech, because that could be considered content-neutral, as opposed to the content or message of the signs.

However, even if true, the Ordinance, as Attorney Marc A. Scaringi pointed out during oral argument before the Third Circuit, would still not pass Constitutional muster, because “[it] gives much more generous regulations as to number and duration for commercial signs than [non-commercial signs]. The Circuit Court agreed and found that the Ordinance treated commercial speech better than non-commercial speech; it is horn book law that commercial speech may not be treated better than non-commercial speech.

The Circuit Court held that the Ordinance is content-based, and not, as the Borough argued, a content-neutral time, place, or manner restriction. Finding the Ordinance content-based, the Court then applied the strict scrutiny test, which is the hardest test for the government to satisfy. To regulate based on the content of the message, and not run afoul of the First Amendment, the government must prove the regulation is necessary to achieve a compelling interest, and the regulation must be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. We spent a lot of time explaining how the Ordinance afforded preferential treatment to Holiday signs and decorations over political yard signs.

Camp Hill Borough argued that it was compelled to regulate signs differently to promote traffic safety and aesthetics (i.e., beauty). The Court held that the Borough did not provide any evidence that its Ordinance satisfied those interests. Also, the Court held the Ordinance was not narrowly tailored because the Borough did not use the least restrictive means to promote traffic safety and aesthetics. Judge Bibas wrote:

“As for aesthetics, Personal Expression Signs are ‘no greater an eyesore’ than commercial lawn signs.’ Camp Hill gives no reason to think that holiday signs are necessarily more attractive. Maybe people prefer inflatable Santas, Frostys, and the like to lawn signs, but Camp Hill failed to show that.”

Regarding traffic safety, Judge Bibas wrote:

“If anything, Camp Hill’s preferential treatment for Holiday Decorations undermines its purported interest in traffic safety. Unchecked, residents filled their front lawns with gardens of illuminated Halloween creatures, tree-sized plastic skeletons, and large reindeer. These spooky spirits and skeletons may startle drivers, and Rudolph with his nose so bright may blind them. So, this arrangement cannot be the least restrictive way to protect drivers and pedestrians.”

In conclusion, Judge Bibas wrote, “While trying to preserve aesthetics and promote traffic safety, Camp Hill stitched together a crazy quilt of a sign ordinance. Because it discriminates against some messages, the Ordinance is unconstitutional on its face. So, we affirm the District Court’s summary judgment for the challengers.”

About the Third Circuit’s decision, Paul E. Lewis, Camp Hill GOP Chair, states, “This is a great victory for all residents of Camp Hill, regardless of political affiliation. Ultimately, our rights under the Constitution prevailed as they should have. I hope that our local government in the future will focus on spending taxpayer dollars on issues better suited to improving life in our community. Many thanks to our legal team at Scaringi Law for their tireless efforts.”

Katherine Pearson states, “I feel like our 1st amendment rights, among others, are being eroded daily by the Biden administration. I am so very thankful to God and this panel of judges for upholding my God-given and Constitutional right to exercise my freedom of speech. I would hate to think where we would be today without this very important 1st Amendment.”

Caroline Machiraju states, “Freedom of speech is the freedom most under fire in our country today. From suppression of America-first media coverage to rejection of conservative opinions in local media to this borough’s assault on yard signs of all things!! All because they fear the truth. Freedom won today! And with that, so will truth! God bless America!”

Marc A. Scaringi, Co-Founder and Firm Manager of Scaringi Law, thanks Senior Associate Attorneys Jeffrey R. Schott and Brian C. Caffrey for their invaluable assistance, effort, and great work in this matter both at the District Court and Third Circuit Court levels.

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