The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From De Pere Ledgeview Municipal Court v. Knaus, decided today by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals:
In August 2015, the Town sent Knaus a letter advising him, among other things, that an old vehicle kept outside on his property did not comply with a Town ordinance [which generally bans "leav[ing] or allow[ing] to remain on the property any motor vehicle which is abandoned, junked, or hazardous"]. The Town requested that Knaus propose how to rectify this purported violation. Knaus responded via letter that the vehicle was a "van lawn ornament" ….
Knaus … insists that his rights to "Freedom of Speech and Expression" allowed him to display his "lawn ornament van" on his property, citing his vehicle's red, white and blue paint job as "show[ing] patriotic expression." As the circuit court noted, that Knaus may consider his vehicle a "lawn ornament" does not excuse the vehicle from compliance with [the ordinance]. And even if Knaus's "lawn ornament" could qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment, that alone does not render invalid either the ordinance or the Town's enforcement of it. See Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989) (government may impose regulations on time, place and manner of speech if they are content-neutral, narrowly-tailored in service of a legitimate governmental interest, and do not foreclose all avenues of speech)…. Knaus does not cite any authority or develop an argument on this issue, so we decline to address it in any greater depth….
Sounds right to me. Indeed, if the law focused on the designs (e.g., barring any vehicles painted in American flag colors), it would be unconstitutionally viewpoint-basde—but a content-neutral restriction aimed at promoting aesthetics is constitutional, at least so long as it leaves open ample alternative channels for speech (such as via flags, signs, and the like), see City of Ladue v. Gilleo (1994). One can debate whether such aesthetic regulations improperly restrict people's property rights; but a content-neutral ban on having junked vehicles on one's property doesn't violate the First Amendment, regardless of the vehicle's paint job.