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US Supreme Court rules Austin can keep billboard restrictions

(Shutterstock)

Digital billboards are staying out of Austin after a vote by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday.


The Supreme Court voted 6-3 to uphold the city of Austin's restrictions on "off-premises" billboards after two advertising companies sued over infringement of free speech. Off-premises billboards are signs advertising businesses that are not at the property where the sign is located.

The high court ultimately ruled that the city can restrict new billboards that are deemed off-premises from going up, including digitized ones—flashy signs that switch images digitally up to every eight seconds—and that it does not impermissibly restrict speech.

The city stopped any new off-premises billboards from going up years ago in a move to preserve nature and prevent distracted driving. The ordinance did not affect existing billboards, but the past few years have been riddled with court battles around what billboards are allowed.

A years-long court battle started in 2017, when Lamar Advertising Company and Reagan Outdoor Advertising, asked the city of Austin to allow them to digitize up to 85 of their billboards. When they were denied, the pair sued arguing the regulations were discriminatory since on-premise signs were allowed to be digital, making this a content-based issue where they said their first amendment rights were violated. The Fifth Circuit agreed in its Aug. 25, 2020 opinion.

Writing for the majority Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote "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."

Though Austin has taken on a tech hub identity, groups like nonprofit Scenic Texas have been supportive of the city fighting against more billboards and digitized ones. Margaret Lloyd, a Scenic Texas board member, told Austonia high tech doesn't have to mean ugly for Austin's landscape.

"Congratulations to the city of Austin for winning this case...This isn't just isolated to Austin—it's a win for cities everywhere," Lloyd said.

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