On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the City of Austin, Texas’s petition for writ of certiorari in a case that may determine the legal fate of states’ and local governments’ efforts to restrict billboard advertising.

In the case, which we reported on previously, Austin denied permits to two billboard companies that were seeking to convert existing, static billboards to digital signs.  The billboard companies challenged, and the city removed to federal court.  The district court rejected the billboard companies’ challenge.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the city’s sign code, which prohibited the erection of new off-premises advertising signs (i.e. signs that advertise goods and services that are not available on the property on which the sign is located) and further prohibited technological changes to nonconforming signs, violated the First Amendment.  The appeals court concluded that the regulation was content based.  Content based laws implicate the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, where the Court determined that laws that regulate the message or subject matter of signs are constitutionally suspect.  The appeals court’s holding in the City of Austin case was premised upon the fact that the off-premises advertising restriction related specifically to the content of a sign.  Under the sign code, if the sign’s message related to goods and services on the property where the sign was located, it would be permissible; if the message addressed other matters, it would be prohibited.  This, the court found, was impermissible.
Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court to Review Austin Billboard Case

In a recent order on cross motions for summary judgment, a federal district court in Florida reiterated the high bar to upholding prior restraints on speech.  Plaintiffs Florida Beach Advertising and its owner and operator David Duvernay were cited on three occasions for violating a section of the City of Treasure Island’s code that requires any person to obtain a license before displaying a sign, banner, or advertisement.  They brought claims that the code violated the First Amendment—facially and as applied—and was preempted by state statute.  Although the plaintiffs challenged the entire code, the court found they had standing only to challenge the specific section they were cited for violating.  While the court quickly ruled for the City on the preemption challenge, it provided more robust analysis of the First Amendment claims.

Continue Reading District Court Strikes Down Florida City’s Sign License Requirement

Our friend and colleague, Professor Daniel R. Mandelker of Washington University in St. Louis, has published a new article, titled Billboards, Signs, Free Speech, and the First Amendment.  The article is featured in the Real Property, Trust, and Estate Law Journal.  The article traces the history of billboard regulation and the eventual application

Recent litigation against the city of Fort Worth has once again confirmed that localities should steer clear of content-based sign codes and free-wheeling approval processes.  Dallas’s neighbor learned that lesson after a federal district court struck down portions of its regulations, concluding they were both content-based and a prior restraint, and also unable to survive strict scrutiny.

The case arose from plaintiff Brookes Baker’s efforts to place crosses in the city right-of-way alongside an abortion clinic.
Continue Reading Federal District Court Strikes Down Fort Worth’s Prohibition and Exemption Scheme for Materials in the Right-of-Way

As a company that sells advertising space on benches in public areas, Bench Billboard Company has a long and storied litigation history against municipalities in Ohio and Kentucky.  In this most recent iteration, the BBC challenged the constitutionality of Colerain Township’s (a Cincinnati suburb) restriction on signage in its right of way after the Township

A billboard company’s challenge to the Troy, Michigan sign variance standards–which we reported on three years ago–has now resulted in an appellate decision that has the potential to greatly change commercial speech regulation as we know it.  Two weeks ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s sign code was an unconstitutional prior restraint and was content-based in its regulation of temporary signs.  The most remarkable aspect of the decision, however, was the court’s conclusion that any content-based commercial sign regulation should now be subjected to strict scrutiny analysis, which is nearly always fatal to a sign regulation.

The Troy sign ordinance allows property owners to post one ground sign of up to 12 feet in height and not exceeding 100 square feet, plus one additional ground sign, so long as the second sign is set back 200 feet from a right-of-way, is no more than 25 feet tall, does not exceed 300 square feet in area, and is not less than 1,000 feet from any other sign exceeding 100 square feet.  International Outdoor sought to install 672-square-foot, double-sided advertising signs in Troy that did not meet the foregoing requirements and sought a variance.  The criteria used by the city’s appeals board were threefold:  “(1) the variance would not be contrary to the public interest or general purpose and intent of this Chapter; and (2) the variance does not adversely affect properties in the immediate vicinity of the proposed sign; and (3) the petitioner has a hardship or practical difficulty resulting from the unusual characteristics of the property that precludes reasonable use of the property.”  The board denied the variance for failure to meet the criteria.
Continue Reading In Billboard Company’s Challenge to a Michigan Sign Ordinance, the Sixth Circuit Finds That Content-Based Commercial Speech Regulations Are Now Subject to Strict Scrutiny

One of the plaintiffs’ billboards in Austin, Texas. Source: Reagan National Advertising.

Last week, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that the City of Austin, Texas’s sign ordinance was content based and unconstitutional due to the fact it impermissibly distinguished between on-premises and off-premises signs.  The Fifth Circuit’s ruling follows a similar ruling by the Sixth Circuit in a challenge to a Tennessee state law governing billboards, and sets up the possibility of further confusion in the area of billboard regulation.

In the Austin case, two billboard companies sought permits to convert existing billboards to digital signs.  The city denied the permits on the ground that its sign code prohibits new off-premises signs (i.e. signs that advertise business or services not located on the property on which the sign is located) and that conversion of existing billboards to digital faces would change the technology of a nonconforming sign in violation of the code.  The billboard companies challenged the denial in state court.  The city removed the case to federal court.  During the pendency of the litigation, the city amended its sign code to allow the substitution of noncommercial messages on any commercial sign in the city.  Following a bench trial, the district court determined that the sign code was content neutral and denied the billboard companies’ request for declaratory judgment.
Continue Reading Austin, Texas Sign Ordinance Declared Content Based, Unconstitutional

A billboard for Lion’s Den (not a truck trailer). Source: i70signshow.com.

In late April, in a case filed by an adult bookstore challenging the application of Kentucky’s Billboard Act to one of its advertisements, a federal judge of the Western District of Kentucky found the entire Billboard Act to violate the First Amendment.

Lion’s Den is a chain of adult “superstores” with locations along major highways throughout the Midwestern United States.  At one particular location along I-65 in Kentucky, Lion’s Den affixed one of its billboards to the side of a truck trailer, such that it was visible from the highway.  The Kentucky transportation department ordered Lion’s Den to remove the sign, on the grounds that it was not secured to the ground and located on a mobile structure and because the store lacked a permit for the billboard.  The basis for the state’s order was that the Kentucky Billboard Act prohibited the sign.  Under the statute, however, the regulations in question were only applied to off-premises signs.
Continue Reading Federal Judge Rules Kentucky’s Billboard Act Unconstitutional In Its Entirety

An Adams Outdoor billboard in Madison. Source: Madison.com.

This week, a federal district court in Wisconsin ruled that Adams Outdoor Advertising’s claims that the Madison sign ordinance is unconstitutional could not survive summary judgment.  The ruling in the city’s favor is further support for the proposition that Reed v. Town of Gilbert does not upset longstanding commercial speech doctrine.

The Madison sign ordinance generally prohibits billboard advertising in most areas of the city.  Where they are permitted, billboards are subject to strict regulation as to setback, height, sign area, and spacing between signs.  The city also operates an exchange program, whereby owners of signs that are removed due to redevelopment can “bank” their sign area and obtain a permit in another area of the city.  The city also prohibits digital signs.

Beginning in 2016, Adams Outdoor sought permits for billboards in the city.  It first sought to avail itself of the sign exchange program with respect to one of its signs, but the city determined that the sign was not eligible for the banking program.  Adams Outdoor then submitted 26 applications to the city in 2017 seeking to modify or replace existing billboards.  The city denied 25 of the 26 permits on the grounds that the sign ordinance did not permit the modifications in question.  Adams Outdoor appealed 22 of the denials to the city’s Urban Design Commission, while also filing a lawsuit in federal court.  After the filing of the lawsuit, the city adopted a variety of amendments to its sign ordinance, to ensure that the ordinance complied with Reed.
Continue Reading Billboard Company’s Challenge to Madison, Wisconsin Sign Code Fails

A sign welcomes visitors to Bentley Manor in Shavano Park. Source: mytexashomeresource.com

It is a rare free speech case where a court finds a regulation content based, but still upholds the regulation.  That very scenario played out in a federal district court in Texas, when it upheld the City of Shavano Park’s sign regulation prohibiting certain banner signs.

Shavano Park, a suburb of San Antonio, has a sign code that controls the placement of signs on private property.  The code allows one temporary sign per residential lot, with some additional allowances when properties are for sale or during election seasons.  The code also allows the placement of banner signs in residential zoning districts, with some limitations.  These limitations include that such signs may be erected by a homeowners’ association, they may be placed at entrances to residential neighborhoods, no more than one banner sign is allowed per owner, and banner signs are only permitted in the week before the first Tuesday in October, which coincides with National Night Out.  The sign code’s stated rationale for its restrictions focuses largely on aesthetics.
Continue Reading Texas City’s Banner Sign Limitation Found Content Based, But Survives First Amendment Challenge