by Gary Taylor
Adams Outdoor Advertising v. City of Madison, Wisconsin
Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, January 4, 2023
Adams Outdoor Advertising (AOA) owns billboards throughout the Midwest, including 90 in Madison, Wisconsin. Like a majority of cities Madison adopted a sign ordinance to promote traffic safety and aesthetics. It comprehensively regulates “advertising signs,” which is defined under the ordinance as any sign advertising or directing attention to a business, service, or product offered offsite; in other words, a sign that advertises something unrelated to the premises on which the sign sits. The construction of new advertising signs has been banned under the Madison ordinance since 1989. Existing advertising signs were allowed to remain but cannot be modified or reconstructed without a permit and are subject to size, height, setback, and other restrictions. In 2009, Madison amended its sign ordinance to prohibit digital displays. In 2017, the definition of “advertising sign” was amended to remove references to noncommercial speech. Several of these amendments spurred lawsuits against Madison by AOA which are not relevant to the present case. As the ordinance now stands, the term “advertising sign” is limited to off-premises signs bearing commercial messages.
AOA initiated the present litigation based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Although the distinction between on-premises and off-premises signs was not at issue in Reed, AOA argued that, under Reed, any ordinance treating off-premises signs less favorably than other signs is a content-based restriction on speech and thus is unconstitutional unless it passes the high bar of strict scrutiny. The district court disagreed and applied intermediate scrutiny. Relying on the Fifth Circuit case of Reagan National Advertising v. City of Austin AOA appealed the district court ruling. When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the Austin case the Seventh Circuit delayed ruling on the AOA v. Madison case pending the outcome of Austin. As readers of this blog know, the U.S. Supreme Court used the Austin decision to clarify that nothing in Reed altered its earlier precedents applying intermediate scrutiny to billboard ordinances and upholding on-/off-premises sign distinctions as ordinary content-neutral “time, place, or manner” speech restrictions.
For time, place, and manner restrictions to be valid they need only be narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” It has been established through countless cases that traffic safety and visual aesthetics are significant governmental interests. AOA nonetheless argued that the Madison ordinance failed intermediate scrutiny because the city failed to provide empirical evidence linking billboards to aesthetic or safety-related harms. Citing earlier precedent, the Seventh Circuit stated that “billboards, by their very nature…can be perceived as an esthetic harm” and the city “need not try to prove that its aesthetic judgments are right.” Likewise, the connection between billboards and traffic safety is too obvious to require empirical proof. “It does not take a double-blind empirical study, or a linear regression analysis, to know that the presence of overhead signs and banners is bound to cause some drivers to slow down in order to read the sign before passing it.”
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of AOA’s claim.