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Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition v. District of Columbia

August 11, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge


Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, an anti-war and anti-racism organization ("ANSWER"), and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation ("MASF") bring this action against the District of Columbia ("the District") seeking a declaration that the District's municipal regulations governing the display of posters in public spaces are unconstitutional and the issuance of an injunction that would prohibit their enforcement.

Before the court is the District's motion to dismiss on the grounds that this court should abstain in the exercise of its jurisdiction under the equitable restraint doctrine set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) and because ANSWER and MASF do not have standing to prosecute their claims [# 8]. Upon consideration of the motion, the opposition thereto, the oral arguments of counsel at a hearing, and the record of the case, the court concludes that the District's motion must be granted.


In the summer of 2007, ANSWER posted a large number of signs in public locations around the District of Columbia in protest of the war in Iraq. Thereafter, ANSWER was cited and fined over 200 times for violating a District of Columbi regulation governing "postering" found at 24 D.C.M.R. § 108.9. This regulation prohibits the affixing of "[s]igns, advertisements, and posters . . . by adhesives that prevent their complete removal from the fixture, or that do damage to the fixture," to which the sign, advertisement, or poster is attached. 24 D.C.M.R. § 108.9. ANSWER has contested the citations before the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH"), but OAH has not yet ruled on ANSWER's challenges.

MASF, another grass-roots political organization, has not been cited for any violation of the postering regulations. MASF, however, alleges that the regulations are unconstitutionally vague, overly broad, and operate to deter MASF and other activist political groups from exercising their First Amendment free speech rights. MASF, like ANSWER, seeks a declaration that the postering regulations are unconstitutional and an injunction against their enforcement.


The District moves to dismiss this action under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure [# 8]. With respect to ANSWER's claim, the District argues that the court should exercise "equitable restraint" and dismiss ANSWER's claim under the Younger abstention doctrine.*fn1 With regard to MASF's claim, the District argues that MASF does not have standing.*fn2 The District's arguments are correct.

A. The Younger Abstention Doctrine

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and have a "virtually unflagging obligation" to exercise the jurisdiction given to them. Bridges v. Kelly, 84 F.3d 470, 475 (D.C. Cir. 1996). Under certain circumstances, however, a federal court should decline to exercise its jurisdiction. One such circumstance is when a federal court is called upon to apply the equitable restraint doctrine set forth in Younger v. Harris. Younger abstention is appropriate when a federal court's adjudication of an action would result in its intervention in an ongoing state proceeding that is judicial in nature and involves an important state interest.*fn3 401 U.S. at 41. The Younger abstention doctrine rests on principles of comity and federalism. These principles require federal courts to maintain a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.

Younger, 401 U.S. at 44.*fn4

The Younger abstention doctrine applies to all state proceedings that are judicial in nature, which includes not only criminal and civil actions, but also state administrative proceedings. Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n v. Dayton Christian Schs., Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 629 (1986). Even when the administrative body in question does not have the power to review constitutional claims, it suffices that "constitutional claims may be raised in state-court judicial review of the administrative proceeding." Id.; see also Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982).

The District persuasively argues that this court should apply the Younger abstention doctrine here and not render a decision that would operate as an intervention in the OAH proceedings in which ANSWER challenges the District's citations for ANSWER's postering activities.As the District points out, this case falls squarely within the three-part test which federal courts employ to determine whether Younger abstention is appropriate. Younger abstention is appropriate here because: (1) ANSWER is involved in ongoing state proceedings that are judicial in nature; 2) these proceedings involve important state interests;*fn5 and 3) the proceedings ...

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