The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has released its decision in City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, LLC, Et al. This case examined the City of Austin’s sign ordinance, which regulates “off-premises” signs (those that advertise a business located elsewhere) more strictly than “on-premises” signs. Two outdoor advertising companies challenged Austin’s ordinance after one company’s attempt to convert its print billboards to digital displays was denied by the city. The advertisers claimed the distinction in the ordinance is “content-based” and in violation of the First Amendment.
A content-based law or regulation is said to be one that discriminates against speech based on the substance of what it communicates, and almost always violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech provision. When content-based laws or regulations are examined the courts use what is known as “strict-scrutiny,” which sets an incredibly high standard for review. Laws or regulations that fail to hold up to strict-scrutiny are deemed to violate the First Amendment. In contrast, laws and regulations that are said to be “content neutral” are examined by the courts using “intermediate scrutiny.” This is a standard far easier to overcome than strict scrutiny and typically permits actions to regulate speech so long as it is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.”
In a 6-3 decision, SCOTUS ruled in favor of the city, finding the distinction between off-premises and on-premises signs to be facially content-neutral. Thus, requiring judicial review under the intermediate scrutiny standard. The matter was sent back down to the lower courts for them to review the signed ordinance and determine whether or not it withstands intermediate scrutiny.
The distinction and treatment of off-premises signs and on-premises signs are common in many local sign ordinances in New Jersey and across the country. Had SCOTUS ruled against the city and found the ordinance to be a content-based restriction, municipal ordinances regulating signs that draw a distinction between on-/off-premises would likely not hold up to the strict scrutiny review, resulting in these ordinances being unenforceable as they would be in violation of the First Amendment. Still, in light of this ruling municipalities are wise to review their own sign ordinances to ensure they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest.
Contact: Frank Marshall, Esq., Associate General Counsel, FMarshall@njlm.org or 609-695-3481 x 137.