April 21, 2022
Decided April 21, 2022
City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc., No. 20-1029
Today, the Supreme Court held that a regulation treating on-premises signs—those that contain advertisements for the place where the signs are located—differently from off-premises signs is content neutral and therefore not subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment.
Background: The Sign Code of Austin, Texas permits the new construction only of signs and billboards that advertise for the place where they are located, which are known as on-premises signs. The Code similarly permits only on-premises signs to be equipped with electronic controls that, for example, allow billboards to cycle through digital advertisements. Advertisers wishing to convert off-premises billboards to digitally changeable displays sued, claiming that the Code discriminates based on the content of their speech in violation of the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit agreed, holding that because the on-premises/off-premises distinction could be applied only by a person who reads and interprets the sign’s message, the regulation was content-based and subject to strict scrutiny. Finding no compelling government justification, the Fifth Circuit found the Code’s distinction unconstitutional.
Issue: Whether the Sign Code’s distinction between on- and off-premises signs is a content-neutral regulation of speech.
Court’s Holding: The Sign Code’s distinction between on- and off-premises advertisements is facially content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment. The Court remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit to apply that test, rather than strict scrutiny.
“[H]old[ing] 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.”
Justice Sotomayor, writing for the Court
What It Means:
The Court’s opinion is available here.
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