What Isn't Freedom Of Speech... (THANKFULLY!)
U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs billboard industry claim that it has a U.S. Constitutional right to blight the environment with digital ads
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that it is not an abridgment of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free speech for communities to regulate the billboard industry.
The Court, in a 6-3 vote, ruled the city of Austin, TX, could deny a billboard company a permit to convert traditional billboards to digital signage capable of broadcasting multiple commercial messages per minute.
The majority said Austin asserted a “legitimate interest” in adopting its signage regulations - “the public has an interest in ensuring traffic safety and preserving an aesthetically pleasing environment.” The Court cited a study showing digital billboards increase motor vehicle crash rates and cause accidents.
The Court’s decision eliminates any doubt; billboards are subject to regulation based on aesthetics and public safety.
The case is City of Austin, TX v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, et. al, U.S., No. 20-1029.
Top Hats and Casinos
For years, the handful of corporate companies that control the billboard industry have acted like school yard bullies.
I stood on the front porch of a house owned by an old Italian man living in small residential neighborhood in Indianapolis in 2003. He pointed to a massive billboard looming over his street. The ad on the billboard pictured two naked men holding top hats over their private parts. The message said the men would “take off their hats” if viewers didn’t listen to their local talk radio show. The old man said he no longer invited his grandchildren to his home because he was embarrassed by the crassness of the billboard ad.
Coincidentally, I was driving earlier that week with my then- 8-year-old son along a busy highway on the outskirts of Indianapolis when I realized for the first time the impact of billboards on children. My son noticed a billboard that depicted happy young couples drinking alcohol and playing craps. My son asked, “What’s a ca-shee-no?”
The confluence of circumstances inspired me to write a letter to the editor of The Indianapolis Star questioning the proliferation of billboards in the city.
That letter led to a campaign of vilification by billboard company representatives over many months, both in print and during public meetings held by city officials to consider regulating billboards. It was as if they knew their product was indefensible so they made a strategic decision to personally attack their critic.
Since then, billboard companies have fought hundreds of battles with states and cities across the country, claiming their product constitutes inviolate “free speech.”
Content is key
The Court said the First Amendment covers speech based on its “communicative content” or “applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.”
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