This post is authored by ELGL member Julie Tappendorf and reshared with permission from Ancel Glink.
The US Supreme Court just issued an opinion in a case challenging the City of Austin’s sign regulations. This case overturns the Court of Appeals ruling finding the City’s sign regulations to be unconstitutional and seems to offer welcome relief to municipalities struggling to regulate off-premise signs after the Court’s 2015 ruling in Reed v. Gilbert. City of Austin v. Reagan.
Like many other municipalities, the City of Austin, Texas has enacted sign regulations that restrict off-premises signs. Under the City’s sign code, no new off-premises sign can be installed, and existing off-premises signs are “grandfathered,” meaning they can remain in place but cannot be altered in a manner that would increase their nonconformity. Two billboard companies challenged the City’s sign regulations, claiming that the City’s distinction between off-premises signs and on-premises signs is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free speech clause and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Reed.
The District Court held that the City’s sign regulations were content-neutral and the distinction between on-premise and off-premise signs satisfied the constitutional standard for content-neutral signs. The Court of Appeals reversed, however, finding that the distinction was content-based because a government official would have to read a sign’s message to decide whether a particular sign was off-premise or on-premise. The Court of Appeals then determined that the City’s sign regulations did not satisfy the constitutional analysis that applies to content-based signs (strict scrutiny).
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned the Court of Appeals ruling, rejecting the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of Reed to mean that a sign regulation is “content-based” if an official has to read the sign to make a determination on whether a sign fell under the off-premise or on-premise regulation. The majority opinion found that interpretation of Reed to be “too extreme.” The Court acknowledged that some evaluation of a sign’s message may be necessary in applying sign regulations and that evaluation alone does not turn a content-neutral sign into a content-based sign that requires a stricter scrutiny for a constitutional analysis.
The Supreme Court distinguished this challenge to the one at issue in Reed, finding that the challenged City of Austin sign regulations do not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment. Instead, the Court found that the challenged sign regulations distinguish based on location, which was more in the nature of a time, place, or manner restriction rather than a content or message restriction. The Court also acknowledged the Court’s previous decisions that have upheld the distinction between on- and off-premise signs, including restrictions on billboards.
The Court did not make a determination as to whether the challenged sign regulations survive the “content-neutral” analysis and instead sent it back to the lower courts for application of the proper constitutional test for content-neutral sign challenges.