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Advertising companies wanted to overturn Austin’s billboard rules. U.S. Supreme Court says no.

Reagan Advertising billboard in Austin
Patricia Lim
Reagan Advertising billboard by Ben White Boulevard and Lamar Boulevard in Austin.

The U.S. Supreme Court, on a vote of 6-3, has upheld the City of Austin restrictions on billboards and other signs. The rules were challenged by a pair of companies that own billboards in Austin, who argued that the city’s distinction between on- and off-premises signs is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The high court disagreed.

For decades, Austin has outlawed what it calls "off-premises signs" — that is, billboards advertising something that's not on the same property as the sign. The billboards you do see around town existed before the ban went into effect and were allowed to stay up. The city says the limitations on billboards are for aesthetic and safety reasons, basically arguing billboards are ugly and distracting to drivers.

Reagan National Advertising applied for a city permit in 2017 to turn its regular billboards into electronic ones — giant digital screens that can change images or messages, as opposed to static billboards that show only whatever information is manually glued onto them. Lamar Advertising also filed an application to digitize its billboards.

The requests were denied because the city ordinance allows only on-premises signs to be digitized.

So, the companies sued.

Their argument: The city’s distinction between “off-premises” and “on-premises” signs is an unconstitutional infringement on the companies’ First Amendment rights.

Why? Because the only way to know if the sign is off premises is to read it.

They argued that means that the city regulates billboards differently, depending on their content — which makes the rules a “content-based restriction” on speech.

Courts treat those kinds of regulations much more skeptically. They’re subject to what’s called “strict scrutiny," basically the highest standard a court will use to judge whether a law is constitutional.

“If a court finds that a law is content based, it’s extremely difficult for the law to survive,” Genevieve Lakier, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said. She filed a brief in the Austin case, arguing the city’s ordinance should be upheld.

Even though Austin’s billboard regulations might not sound like traditional content-based restrictions, the billboard companies argue the distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs is content based. You'd have to read a sign advertising a car dealership that's miles away, for example, in order to know that it's an off-premises sign.

A majority of the Supreme Court dismissed that argument, though.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said “this rule, which holds that a regulation cannot be content neutral if it requires reading the sign at issue, is too extreme an interpretation of this Court’s precedent.”

Corrected: April 21, 2022 at 7:32 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said the vote was 5-4. It was 6-3.
Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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