Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case evaluating how municipalities can regulate electronic message boards and off-premises signs (i.e., billboards). This dispute marks the first time the Supreme Court has waded into local signage control since 2015, when the Court decided Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Reed introduced significant uncertainty for communities seeking to promote community aesthetics through sign regulation. We will soon see whether City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising brings more of the same.
In 2017, two advertising companies submitted permit applications to digitize billboards located in Austin, Texas. Austin denied the applications based on a city sign code provision that only allowed on-premises signs to feature digital displays. The code prohibited off-premises digital signs. Austin’s code (like many other sign codes) defines off-premises signs as “a sign that displays any message directing attention to a business, product, service, profession, commodity, activity, event, person, institution, or other commercial message which is generally conducted, sold, manufactured, produced, offered, or occurs elsewhere than on the premises where the sign is located.”
The advertising companies challenged the constitutionality of Austin’s on-premises/off-premises distinction on First Amendment grounds. In defense, Austin argued that its sign regulations promoted a compelling government interest; namely, protecting the aesthetic value of the city and public safety. Last August, a federal court sided with the advertisers and found that Austin’s prohibition of off-premises digital signs was an unconstitutional content-based speech regulation.
Communities regularly distinguish between on-premises signs and off-premises signs, and, in some cases, enforce sign codes that prohibit off-premises signs altogether. The Supreme Court’s interest in this case suggests municipalities should be prepared to potentially reconsider that regulatory approach, and particularly if the Court issues another opinion like Reed. We’ll be monitoring this case closely.
Post authored by Greg Jones and Daniel James