Court Chooses Manhattan Zoning Laws Over First Amendment, Unplugs Neon Peace Sign

Sunday, October 16, 2016
Brigitte Vosse (photo: BAM blog)

By Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service


MANHATTAN (CN) — For a Manhattan designer trying to shine pacifist ideals from the window of her historic 17th-story apartment, the Second Circuit cut the lights Friday, providing no justice, no peace.


Unanimously affirming dismissal of the case, the federal appeals court said First Amendment rights do not trump zoning regulations that bar Manhattan clothing designer Brigitte Vosse from subjecting neighbors of the iconic Ansonia building to a neon red peace sign.


Vosse's attorney Gideon Oliver noted that this decision could spell trouble for New Yorkers feeling the holiday spirit, if they live in a high-rise.


"The bottom line is that most New Yorkers would be surprised to learn that displaying an illuminated jack-o'-lantern, menorah or Christmas wreath from their window ... could subject them to significant fines," Oliver said in a phone interview.


Vosse first hung the display on her living room alcove window in December 2010. Court papers say she was protesting "war as a solution to human problems — including [her] disagreement with American military policies with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan."


The following year, however, Vosse received a notice that she had violated zoning regulations for the Upper West Side that bar illuminated signs higher than 40 feet from the ground.


Siding with the city in 2015, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff found that the regulations represented content-neutral "time, place, and manner" restrictions permitted under the Bill of Rights.


Just over a week after hearing Vosse's appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed Friday.


"The parties therefore agree that Vosse is free to display the same sign in her window, as long as it is not illuminated," the 2-page order (pdf) states. "Although Vosse argues that an unilluminated sign would be harder for passers-by to see at night, the First Amendment 'does not guarantee the right to communicate one's views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired.'"


Vosse faces an $800 penalty. Her attorney said Vosse is disappointed but would not reveal whether they plan to appeal.


With Halloween just around the corner, Oliver warned that "everyone should beware and check the zoning regulations, especially this time of year."


New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci applauded the decision.


"We are pleased that the court agreed the city has a legitimate interest in preserving neighborhood character and that Ms. Vosse has a number of other ways to communicate her message," Paolucci said.


To Learn More:

Brigitte Vosse v. City of New York, et al. (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit) (pdf)

Embattled Peace Sign Fights to Be Seen Atop Historic 19th-Century Manhattan High-Rise (by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service)


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