We have written a number of posts on Municipal Minute discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in cases challenging municipal sign codes under the First Amendment. In 2015, we reported on the Court’s decision in Reed v. Gilbert that struck down the Town of Gilbert, Arizona’s temporary sign regulations. The Reed case had subsequently been applied by a number of courts across the country in challenges to municipal sign regulations where sign companies and others made an argument that the challenged regulations treated signs differently based on content, even where a regulation appeared to target sign location (i.e., on-premises versus off-premises signage) rather than the content of the sign itself.
In April of 2022, we reported on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in National Advertising of Austin v. Austin where the Court upheld a City of Austin, Texas ordinance that distinguished between on-premises and off-premises signs, finding that the locational regulation was more in the nature of a time, place, and manner restriction rather than a restriction on the content or message of the sign. The Court rejected the argument that if an official had to read the sign to determine whether it was on-premise or off-premise (i.e., a “need to read” regulation), then it was a content-based regulation, holding that this interpretation of Reed was too extreme.
Just last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court covering Illinois and nearby states), issued a ruling in a billboard challenge consistent with the Austin case, upholding a Madison, Wisconsin ordinance that that prohibited digital billboard signs. In Adams Outdoor Advertising LP v. City of Madison, Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit rejected the billboard company’s argument that Reed should control the outcome of the case. Instead, the Seventh Circuit relied on the more recent ruling in the Austin case to uphold Madison’s ban on digital off-premises signs as a content-neutral “time, place, or manner” regulation, finding that the regulation targeted the location of the sign, and not the content or message. The Seventh Circuit also noted that Madison’s stated government interests in promoting traffic safety and preserving visual aesthetics were significant government interests to support Madison’s digital sign ban. In sum, the Seventh Circuit rejected the billboard company’s challenge to Madison’s digital off-premises sign ban.