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Probate & Property Magazine


Expectation turns to the Supreme Court as it once more takes up a free speech dispute about billboard regulation. On June 28, 2021, the Court granted the City of Austin’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari in Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc. v. City of Austin, 972 F.3d 696 (5th Cir. 2020), in which the Fifth Circuit struck down the city’s ban on digitizing off-premises signs. Billboards have a long history of legal contention, and billboard intolerance is historic. Billboards have their place, but they can overpower the aesthetic environment and threaten traffic safety. Before they were regulated at the beginning of the 20th century, billboards overwhelmed rural and urban areas with massive structures that dominated the landscape. Concern about safety issues and an influential aesthetic movement led to stricter controls. They included sign ordinances that prohibited billboards, which courts upheld in early cases. Digital billboards with moving, lighted displays create new problems. They differ from traditional billboards, which have static displays that can be changed manually but do not move.

Local governments regulate signs, and sign ordinances decide what, when, and how signage speech may occur. Free speech doctrine intervenes and mediates government interests in billboard regulation, which creates two important free speech issues. Billboard speech is usually commercial speech, which has received less protection under the free speech clause. Sign ordinances also make distinctions between billboards, regulated as off-premise signs, and business signs, regulated as on-premise signs, which can create free speech problems.

This article summaries the current application of constitutional free speech doctrine to billboard regulation. For a more extensive analysis of this topic by the author, see the author’s recent article published in the Real Property, Trust & Estate Law Journal.


Billboard Regulation

Publication Citation

Daniel R. Mandelker, The Changing Landscape for Billboard Regulation, 36 Prob. & Prop. 40 (2022)