US. Supreme Court upholds distinction between on- and off-premises signs

by Gary Taylor

City of Austin, TX v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin
United States Supreme Court, April 21, 2022

The city of Austin, Texas regulates off-premises signs differently than on-premises signs. At the time this dispute arose Austin’s sign code prohibited construction of new off-premises signs. Existing off-premises signs were grandfathered, but could not be altered in ways that increase their non-conformity. Reagan National Advertising (RNA) sought permits to digitize some of its billboards and was denied. RNA sued, claiming the differential treatment of off-premises signs from on-premises signs (on-premises signs were allowed to be digitized) violated the First Amendment. The District Court held that Austin’s code provisions were content neutral under Reed v. Town of Gilbert and therefore did not violate the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found the distinction to be content-based because the sign’s message must be read to determine the distinction between on- and off-premises signs, and therefore did violate the First Amendment. Austin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled that the on- versus off-premises distinction was facially content neutral and therefore did not violate the First Amendment. Reed held that a regulation of speech is content based if it “targets speech based on its communicative content”; that is, if it applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed. The Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of Reed – that a sign regulation cannot be content neutral if you have to read the sign to understand how to regulate it – is “too extreme” an interpretation. Unlike Reed, Austin’s sign code does not single out any topic or idea expressed for differential treatment; the message matters only insofar as it informs the sign’s location. In this respect, the on- vs. off-premises distinction is more like ordinary time, place or manner restrictions, which do not require the application of the strict scrutiny standard. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has previously validated distinctions between on- and off-premises signs as being content neutral. Reed did not overrule those cases.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent joined by Justices Gorsuch and Barrett. He asserted that the Fifth Circuit correctly interpreted Reed. The Austin code discriminates against certain signs based on the message they convey. This is not changed because the restriction depends on a content neutral factor: the sign’s location. A code enforcement official must not only know where the sign is located, but also what it says.

Suppose a sign [in a storefront window] says “Go To Confession.” After examining the sign’s message, an official would need to inquire whether a priest ever hears confessions at that location. If one does, the sign conveys a permissible “on-premises” message. If not, the sign conveys an impermissible off-premises message.

Justice Thomas contends that the majority “misinterprets Reed’s clear rule for content-based restrictions and replaces it with an incoherent and malleable standard.”

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