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The United States Supreme Court recently ruled on a landmark First Amendment case that threatened to overturn thousands of signal codes across the country.
As a previous Taft bill explained, on-site signs advertise a good, service or activity available on the same property as the sign. These are the signs most of us rely on to know that a Starbucks is a Starbucks, the local tire shop is a tire shop, and the neighborhood place of worship is a place of worship. Offsite signs are what most of us call billboards. They advertise goods, services or activities available on another property.
Austin, Texas – like thousands of other municipalities – regulates billboards more strictly than on-site signs. For example, Austin allows on-site signs to include digital technology, but prohibits digital billboards. Applying a categorical rule that she and the Sixth Circuit adopted following Reed v. City of Gilbert, the Fifth Circuit found that Austin’s distinction between onsite and offsite signs is content-based and subject to scrutiny. According to the Fifth Circuit, this distinction is based on content, because a regulator must examine the content of a sign to know if the thing it is advertising is available on the same premises as the sign. He later ruled that the distinction violated the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court rejected this rule in City of Austin v Reagan National Advertising of Texas, Inc. Rather, he held that the laws distinguishing between on-site and off-site signs governed the placement of a sign, not its message. These laws are therefore subject to intermediate and not strict control. This exploit is likely to save thousands of signal codes nationwide.
Government officials wanting to know more about how City of Austin and other recent First Amendment developments could impact their own signaling codes should contact the author, Donnie Morgan, or a member of Taft’s local government practice.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.
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